Monday, March 11, 2013

Vail Veterans Program. And a fire pole.

While this has nothing to do with any Ironman training, I can't help but share what a great week I had this past week. Last week was the 10th anniversary of the Vail Veterans Program, a powerful ski event that gets newly injured vets learning how to ski again.

When I was injured in 2004, I remember someone coming into my hospital room and asking if I was interested in skiing. The first thought that crossed my mind was, 'I have one leg, how on earth am I going to ski'. I found myself a few months later on the ski slopes of Breckenridge. Hesitant and wobbly at first but by the end of the week, flying down the top on the mountain, the wind in my hair, feeling as free as I have ever been. That trip changed my life and I went back thinking that I could do anything. A few months later I found myself out in Vail, attending my first Vail Veterans Program.

Cheryl and I
Vail Veterans Program is unique in that it is a smaller group, trying to keep the participant numbers around 25-30 and catering to newly injured vets. It is lead by the incredible Cheryl Jensen, whose passion to give back to these wounded soldiers is apparent in all she does. The entire town of Vail rallies around the program and adaptive instructors are lined up the first day to get these men and women out on the ski slopes. A little nervous at first, these soldiers get out of their wheelchairs and into a mon-ski, or take of their prosthetics and get onto that ski or leave them on and strap themselves to a snowboard. If you are a casual skier and you take a look from chair 6 you'll see a curious scene with wheelchairs and prosthetics all lined up at the bottom of the hill. A sight of independence, of overcoming obstacles and proving to themselves what they are capable of. 

The week is one of my favorites of the year. With dinners, and bowling, and tubing, and The George and ending the week at the Vail firehouse where the Vail firefighters host our group for a night filled with lasagna and sliding down their fire pole. Ah, the fire pole.  But the best part of the week is the camaraderie that's seen. And the looks of joy you see when they make it down a run for the first time. This trip truly changes lives.

I've been lucky enough to have been asked back every year as one of the mentor veterans, talking to these new guys, encouraging them that life does go on and to believe in themselves. Over the years I have met lifelong friends that I get to see every year and make new ones that I know I will see again. The triple amputee that learned to snowboard, the couple who got together after his life changing injury and dreams of what their life will be, a former MMA fighter, a West Point football player and recent amputee with his fiancee whose love for each other is apparent for all to see, and the list goes one.

So, if you want some motivation, check out their website at and help this program continue. And next time you are in Vail in March, look up at those slopes and give a thumbs up as these men and woman learn to live again.