Chris Sullivan was a "Never-Ever.
That's how ski instructor Allen Symonds tags his students who have never been on skis a day in their lives.
"I was born in Louisiana, the boyish looking, sandy-haired Sullivan said in his defense. "There are no slopes in Louisiana.
We all know that most of Louisiana is at or below sea level, but this was Snowmass Village, Colo. Sullivan, a 23-year-old paraplegic, found himself looking down from 9,000 feet and rethinking the casual decision he'd made months earlier to learn to ski.
"I got up there, and I thought, 'Man, there's no way I'm going to be able to do this,' he said.
But Sullivan eventually pushed off and surrendered to gravity and to Symonds' patient direction. Three hours and five runs later, he was a convert. "It's a blast! he said.
The experiences of this paraplegic bayou boy, along with nearly 400 other disabled veterans, are why there is a National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. The Clinic turns participants on to the thrill and freedom of skiing, and introduces them to a wide array of other physical activities.
Every April, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the veterans' service organization Disabled American Veterans bring nearly 400 disabled military veterans together for this rehabilitative Clinic to develop winter sports skills and take part in a variety of adaptive workshops, which demonstrate that having a physical or visual disability need not be an obstacle to an active, rewarding life. The veterans are challenged through sports and leisure activities and provided numerous opportunities for self-development.
Participants at the Clinic receive instruction in adaptive downhill skiing and/or snowboarding, cross-country skiing and a wide variety of alternate activities including scuba diving, sled hockey, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, rock climbing, trap shooting, curling, fencing, golf plus educational and instructional workshops on self-defense (taught by Secret Service personnel) and other stimulating topics.
Sullivan was an Army combat engineer serving in Iraq on May 1, 2005, when a bullet to the neck severed his spine. He had emergency surgery right there in Baghdad and more operations in Germany and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The Winter Sports Clinic was his first try at athletics since the injury.
The challenge for Clinic ski instructors like Symonds is to figure out how much an injured veteran can do.
"Every single person is different, he said. "Even if they have the exact same injury, they will have different abilities. So you work with them.
Symonds figured out pretty quickly that Sullivan had a decent amount of control and strength in his arms, but not so much in his hands. Of the various adaptive ski equipment available at the Clinic, Symonds put Sullivan in a bi-ski which is a fiberglass bucket seat resting over two skis. He taped Sullivan's hands to two "outriggers, essentially ski poles with mini skis on the bottom where the point would normally be, that Sullivan could use to balance himself.
Symonds is an Aspen, Colo. native. The lean, bearded mountain man has spent 36 of his 39 years on skis. For the past seven years, he's been an adaptive ski instructor for the disabled, so he knew how to guide Sullivan from fear to exhilaration over the course of their first lesson together.
April 3rd was late in the ski season, and the slopes at Snowmass were rock hard.
"The ski was basically just chattering along the ice, and he was tentative, Symonds said.
Symonds directed the bi-ski from behind for Sullivan's early runs.
"He stayed behind me the whole time telling me different things, Sullivan said.
Sullivan was never merely a passenger, though. Symonds let the novice feel the consequences of actions like leaning too far into a turn. "Okay, now he feels he's fallingg, and now I pull him back in. So he begins to pick that up really quickly, Symonds explained.
"The balance was hard to deal with, Sullivan agreed. "When you're going down the mountain, you've got to know when to lean and when to use the outrigger.
"In the last couple of runs, he really started to figure out where that balance point was—how much he needed to turn and look into the turn, Symonds said. "And if you lean too far, you fall over.
As Symonds relinquished control to Sullivan, there were some spills.
"It'll take some mileage for him to really dial that in, Symonds said. "The snow conditions will play into that. Later in the morning, it softened up, and he was like, 'I get it. I can feel the ski gripping. I can let it flow.'
"When you start getting used to it, that's when it starts being fun, Sullivan said. "I had a good time in my last hour. The young man, who had spent much of his time in hospital beds and wheelchairs for the past two years, found himself in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, zipping down a ski slope, controlling his motion, throwing snow on the turns and feeling the wind on his face.
"He did really, really well, considering he's a 'Never-Ever,' Symonds said. "His attitude was great—really positive and excited. He was intrigued by this whole new experience.
Instructor and student hit the slopes two more times during the week-long Winter Sports Clinic. Sullivan has decided to return every year, but because he can't wait to ski again, he's already looking into other opportunities before next April.
The National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, in its 21st year in 2007, is now the world's largest annual rehabilitative event of its kind for the most diverse group of veterans with disabilities.
"You come here and have a good time, and you see that you can really do stuff that normally you thought you'd never be able to do, Sullivan said.
The young Iraqi War veteran from Lafayette, La., is no longer a "Never-Ever. He's a skier. And now - who knows what else?
For more information about the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic visit: http://www.wintersportsclinic.org.