DSUSA's The Hartford Ski Spectacular changing lives

Dec. 10, 2010, 1:47 p.m. (ET)
As Sam Kavanagh skis perfectly down the mountain, it is hard to believe that just six years ago he was caught in an avalanche while backcountry skiing with some of his closest friends. After spending two days in a tent, Kavanagh was airlifted to the regional hospital where, because of a severe compound fracture to his left tibia and fibula, his left leg was amputated below the knee. Kavanagh is one of hundreds of participants that took part in Disabled Sports USA's annual The Hartford Ski Spectacular.

Growing up in northwestern Montana, Kavanagh was immersed in the winter sports life, especially backcountry skiing, and he was determined to not let his injury stop him from doing what he loves.

He said, "Getting back to skiing is stamping that this hasn't changed me, or changed my dreams or aspirations. It has changed the way that I approach things. Obviously the severity of my accident, being involved in an avalanche has changed my risk level to some extent, but getting back on skis is freeing. It is an encouragement and it inspires me. When I feel that wind rolling through my hair, it just says, you know Sam, this didn't make you something different. You are still the same person in there, you happen to do it with a prosthetic leg, but the same Sam that my wife married is still here. This doesn't have to change my aspirations, who I want to be. I fell in love with the mountains, and I fell in love with the snow, and just because recreating and skiing took away a leg, that doesn't mean that I cannot still find that same beauty there."

Acting as a mentor with The Hartford, a company that has long supported The Hartford Ski Spectacular and Paralympic sport, Kavanagh's story provides inspiration to the hundreds of people at The Hartford Ski Spectacular that might either be too scared to try a new sport, or are even too scared to try the thing that got them hurt in the first place. Kavanagh's fear was not about getting hurt again, but rather could he ski again. He said, "I felt that it was not only important to my physical healing, but also my mental healing to get back on my skis. Just being back on my skis was, in a way, staking my claim saying that adversity you have got nothing on me."

The first time that Kavanagh snapped back into his telemark skis, he bent his knee to make the first turn, which then resulted in his first fall. Once he was lying on the ground, he then started to realize that he did not know how to get up after he fell. After standing back up on his two skis, Sam skied down the beginner slope to the chairlift and essentially had to start all over and ski trails that he had conquered ten years ago, but rather than dwelling on the fact that he was on the easy slopes, Kavanagh was excited that he was skiing, something that he once feared he would never be able to do again.

The Hartford Ski Spectacular, which took place from December 5 – 12 in Breckenridge, Colo., offered events ranging from ski and/or snowboard lessons to Nordic ski clinics. Some of the participants, including nearly 150 injured service men and women, have skied before, and for others this was the first time going from edge to edge on the powdery snow.

The impact that The Hartford Ski Spectacular has on the various participants is indescribable. As Ron Gendreau, Executive Vice President of Group Benefits at The Hartford put it, "For people with disabilities, the reaction or experience, that people have [at Ski Spectacular] is so powerful, especially people who are recently disabled, they get to see firsthand very quickly how sport can help change their lives. When you listen to people who have come to The Hartford Ski Spectacular they describe how they saw something and they say that they knew that they were going to be alright from that point on, and that is what this event is all about."

Kirk Bauer, Executive Director of Disabled Sports USA, would agree that Ski Spectacular has a lasting impact on the participants who are fortunate enough to partake in the week's events. "The Hartford Ski Spectacular has an impact that is both immediate and long term. The immediate impact is the many people that come here, particularly the wounded warriors, who are learning how to ski for the first time, some of them are just out of the hospital or still being treated, and it is an opportunity for them, sometimes for the first time, to realize that they can still be really active and get really involved with life with their disability. So often, this might actually be the first time that they are able to achieve something besides laying in the hospital bed and being taken care of." Bauer goes on to say that he believes that that part of The Hartford Ski Spectacular is really important because "it makes them realize that there is life after disability."

According to Bauer, however, the long term affects that The Hartford Ski Spectacular has on the participants are a lot more important than the short term affects. "The skills that people learn, not only help them in their everyday life, but we have instructors here that are being trained from community ski and snow sport programs from all around the country and they will then go back now and have the latest adaptive techniques and be able to see the demonstration of the latest adaptive equipment that enable people with disabilities to participate in snow sports. That legacy will last for years after this event."

Although the participants may range in age, as well as skiing ability, all of them would agree that sport has helped them in their recovery. Tyler Carter, who came to Ski Spectacular with the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., has been skiing since he was eight years old and is hoping to make it to the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi. Carter is a veteran to The Hartford Ski Spectacular and keeps coming back because of "the great training experience." In terms of skiing, Carter says that it has helped him tremendously in terms of shaping what kind of person he is. "Skiing is just a great way for me to express myself. I don't go in line and say I can't do anything, I don't think that, that is not in my vocabulary. It is a great way for me to show who I am and prove that I can do whatever I want."

John Supon, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, would agree that sport has played a huge role in his recovery from a spinal cord injury. "You start to see people who come out here and compete against people without physical disabilities, and they smoke them, and it is awesome. I think to myself, I can actually be better than you and be sitting down at the same time, that is an amazing feeling."

First-timer Carlos Evans, also a Marine Corps veteran, says sport has played a critical role in his rehabilitation, as well. He said, "It has helped me in a way that I thought I could never use. I am doing it, so it helped me in a way that I could do any other sports that I did not think I could do." Before The Hartford Ski Spectacular, Evans had never even skied, even prior to his accident and he said, "doing something that I have never done before, it is a morale booster and it just gives me a lot of courage to keep doing anything else."

For more information on The Hartford Ski Spectacular and Disabled Sports USA, visit http://www.dsusa.org.