Clinic provides disabled vets pathway to paralympics

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
Air Force veteran Sean Halsted was a decent skier before he fell 40 feet out of a helicopter while on a fast rope during a search-and-rescue training exercise in 1998.

Paralyzed from the waist down, he feared his active days were behind him.

Three years after his accident, Mr. Halsted reluctantly attended his first National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

"I thought it was crazy for anybody to be in a wheelchair up on the mountains," he said. "I knew how hard it was to walk bi-pedally in the snow. Why would anybody want to do it in a chair?"

But Mr. Halsted discovered Nordic skiing and was hooked.

"I got to a level where I said, 'Wow, this is fun,'" he said, excited about the chance to once again ski with his brothers in arms.

Mr. Halsted soon began skiing competitively, rising to become the world's 10th-ranked adaptive cross-country skier. This year, he returned to the clinic a champion after showing the world his stuff during the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada.

Mr. Halsted was among five disabled veterans, two of whom served in Iraq and Afghanistan, represented on the U.S. ski team at the Vancouver games.

Army Staff Sgt. Health Calhoun, who lost both legs to a rocket-propelled grenade attack while serving in Mosul, Iraq, with the 101st Airborne Division, competed in alpine skiing. He also served as the U.S. flag bearer during the opening ceremonies.

Army Sgt. Andrew Soule competed as a biathlete and cross-country skier, winning the bronze medal in the sitting 2.4-kilometer pursuit biathlon. Soule had both legs amputated above the knee after an improvised explosive device detonated beneath his Humvee in Afghanistan in 2005.

Chris Devlin-Young, a Coast Guard veteran, returned for his fourth Paralympics as an alpine skier with four medals -- two gold and two silver -- under his belt.

And Army Sgt. Patrick McDonald participated in his first Paralympics games this year, making the team after only two years of wheelchair curling.

All four veteran Paralympic skiers got their first exposure to adaptive skiing at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here. And as Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki noted March 28 during the opening ceremonies for this year's clinic, the experience changed their lives.

Secretary Shinseki, who led the U.S. delegation during the opening ceremony for the Vancouver games, said he was "absolutely blown away" by what he discovered there. Here at the winter sports clinic, he encouraged the 400 participants to take inspiration from their example.

"Life may have changed for these athletes, but they did not. They would not let themselves be handicapped by limitations," he told the disabled veterans, about 150 of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan. "Life has changed for many of you, but you have not. I hope you are as excited about the experiences and the challenges that lie before you as we are."

Many more disabled veterans have what it takes to follow in the Paralympians' tracks, he said. They're "tough former military people who have been highly disciplined, highly motivated [and] done some of the most difficult missions in the world."

Secretary Shinseki said he hopes the winter sports clinic will encourage some to take that capability and "step into the unknown" as their Paralympic comrades did.

Mr. Halsted said doing so helped him conquer his personal fears. "What used to be a mountain is now a molehill," he said.

Like Mr. Halsted, Mr. Devlin-Young said he reluctantly agreed to participate in the first clinic in 1985, three years after a C-130 Hercules crash left him a paraplegic. He was mad at the world at the time about losing use of his legs and had little interest in trying out skiing.

But the first time down the hill, he said he was hooked.

"It gave me adrenaline and control. It gave me my life back," he said.

Secretary Shinseki conceded that not every disabled veteran who aims to become a Paralympian will make it. "In fact, the vast majority of them won't," he acknowledged. "But the vast majority of them have a chance to live life differently than they might have had they not had this experience."

Even if they never get selected to the Paralympic team, "if they live the other 51 weeks of their year with the same drive and energy and commitment and discipline about being the best, they are going to live different lives," he told American Forces Press Service. "It is not going to be a life of dependence and regretting what might have been. They will discover that there is a lot of living left to do, and they will go out and get it."

The military Paralympians "are folks who have decided they are not going to let anything stand in their way," Secretary Shinseki said. "If we could capture 10 percent of that mental commitment and pass it on to the 400 that are here this week, the result is: I won't see them in hospitals. They won't be lying around in hospital beds or on couches. They are going to be up living life, doing more than they ever thought they could."

The winter sports clinic, called the "Miracle on the Mountainside," offers a window to what's possible, Secretary Shinseki said. "For us, Snowmass is about giving folks that opportunity -- that rehabilitative, recuperative opportunity -- to discover their own miracle."

Several other veteran Paralympians are here at the winter sports clinic helping inspire their fellow disabled veterans. Army veteran Jim Martinson, an Army veteran who also got his first exposure to adaptive skiing at clinic, went on to win the gold medal in downhill skiing at the 1996 Paralympics in Albertville, France.

Earlier this month, as he attended the Vancouver games as a delegate, Mr. Martinson said, he recalled his own experience at the winter sports clinic as he watched other military veterans compete.

"I remember getting in that monoski and learning how to ski and coming to this program in the beginning days (of the clinic)," he said. "I can't wait to go to the next Paralympics, and I can't wait to see someone from this group" competing, he said.

Army veteran Chad Colley, who earned two gold medals at the 1996 Paralympics in Albertville, France, said he's not out to make every participant at the winter sports clinic a ski racer.

"What we want to do," said the Vietnam veteran who lost both legs and an arm, "is expose them to the potential they might not even know they have."

Also at this year's clinic are Air Force veteran Peter Axelson and Army veteran Russell Wolfe. Mr. Axelson competed in the 1986, 1988 and 1990 Paralympics, earning seven medals. Mr. Wolfe began competing in archery at the 1999 National Veterans Wheelchair Games. He went on to compete as an archer on the U.S. Paralympics Team in 2004 and 2008.

Sandy Trombetta, founder and director of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, called these Paralympians' accomplishments an example of "the great things that veterans with disabilities can achieve."

To this year's participants, he posed the question: "Who among you will be the next to break down your personal barriers and represent our country in the next Paralympics?"