Disabled Veterans Aim for Paralympic Dreams
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 4, 2007 For some participants at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic here, it’s not enough simply to make it down the mountain. They’ve set their sights on conquering it — and any other obstacle that stands between them and the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team.
Mark Mix, a Navy veteran who became disabled in Baghdad, left, is looking to the example set by Coast Guard veteran Chris Devlin-Young, a three-time Paralympian and head coach for the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic’s Alpine race and development program. Defense Dept. photo by Donna Miles
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Mark Mix is among about a dozen veterans at the six-day clinic, the only one of the group wounded in Iraq, who have set their sights on becoming accomplished racers and even making the 2010 Paralympic team.
“My goal is to knock him off the podium,” Mix said, pointing to fellow disabled veteran Chris Devlin-Young, head coach for the clinic’s Alpine race and development program.
That’s a lofty goal, considering that Devlin-Young is a three-time Paralympian with two gold and two silver medals under his belt. He’s also the first U.S. athlete to win gold medals in two disability categories.
And like Mix, he got his first taste of skiing at the winter sports clinic here.
Devlin-Young, a Coast Guard veteran, said he reluctantly agreed to participate in the first clinic in 1985, three years after a C-130 aircraft 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, he said.
But the first time down the hill, he was hooked. “It gave me adrenaline and control. It gave me my life back,” he said.
Now Devlin-Young is helping to bring that exhilaration to other disabled veterans bent on pushing their limits on the slopes.
“A lot of these guys want to be racers, and a lot want to be better skiers,” he said. “They want to master the mountain in a way they never imagined.”
He said he sees a lot of potential in Mix, a Navy veteran and former Seabee who was paralyzed from the waist down by a mortar blast in Baghdad in 2004. “Does he have the potential? Yes,” Devlin-Young said. “Does he have the ambition? Yes. Does he have the drive? Yes.”
Three years ago, Devlin-Young might have assessed Mix differently. Mix was a self-proclaimed “couch potato” whose sporting life centered on watching drag racing and NASCAR on TV.
He’d never been on skis before finding himself in a wheelchair, and tried it out for the first time during the 2005 winter sports clinic.
After that, there was no turning back. “The freedom you feel when you’re out there takes the disability away and makes you feel like you’re able-bodied again,” he said.
Mix said he quickly tried to get on with his life after being wounded.
“I didn’t sit back and pout. My wife wouldn’t let me!” he said. Instead, he set his sights on becoming a role model for his children and showing them that “being in a wheelchair doesn’t stop you from anything.”
In fact, it’s pushing the 36-year-old to levels he never thought he would attain. He’s among three Iraqi Freedom veterans in the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Veterans’ Paralympic Performance Program Alpine Skiing program, based here, and has set his sights on the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games.
The VPPP program, a partnership between the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Department of Veterans Affairs and Challenge Aspen, helps groom disabled veterans for national and international ski competitions, explained Houston Cowan, founder and chief executive officer of Challenge Aspen.
Other Iraqi Freedom veterans participating in the program are Keith Calhoun, an Army staff sergeant who had both legs amputated when a rocket-propelled grenade hit in convoy in November 2003, and Casey Owens, a Marine Corps corporal who lost both legs when his Humvee hit a land mine.
Mix is taking the lessons he’s learning through the program and pushing forward with his dream. He returned last week from one of a long string of competitions toward qualifying for the Paralympics: the 2007 Hartford U.S. Disabled Alpine Championships in Waterville Valley, N.H. “I didn’t make it to the podium, but I held my own,” he said.
“He not only held his own, he made a huge statement of what’s to come,” Houston said.
Other veterans at the winter sports clinic here share Mix’s aspirations of refining their skiing technique and becoming champion racers.
Peter Axelson, who raced on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team from 1985 to 1982 and is here working with group, said reaching that goal requires more than just the ability to ski fast.
“It takes strength and a mindset to want to push through limits. It also takes patience and a willingness to do drills over and over. It’s very physical, and it’s very mental,” he said.
Bruce Gibbings, a Vietnam-era Army veteran, said he’s taking in all the lessons Axelson, Devlin-Young and the other instructors here have to offer.
At age 60, Gibbons acknowledges that making the Paralympic Ski Team may be a long shot. But he insists it’s not a dream he’s willing to abandon just yet.
“I might be the oldest member of the Paralympic team, but I want to see if I can get myself there,” he said. Gibbings said he feels up to the rigors of the training.
“I’m healthier and stronger than I’ve ever been,” he said. “God blessed me with a lot of energy, I still have a lot of the use of my body, and I’ve taken my skiing to a level I never dreamed of.”
Terry Smutney, an Army veteran who was disabled due to chemical exposure in northern Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, said he, too, is all ears to the lessons he’s getting here.
Now an adaptive ski instructor himself in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., Smutney frequently works with wounded troops returning from combat. He said the pointers he’s picking up here are helping make him a better skier, racer and teacher to other disabled skiers.
Smutney remembers his first time on skis after his injury, in December 2004, as a life-changing experience. “I was on 12 different medications, four of them narcotics for pain control. I was smoking. I was doing everything wrong,” he said.
Within four months, Smutney was skiing every time he got the opportunity and had tossed away all his medications, as well as his cigarettes. “The only drug I was on was the mountain,” he said.
Now 50, Smutney said he’s too old to think about the Paralympics, but said wants to continue progressing and sharing the joy of skiing and racing with other disabled veterans, especially those just back from combat.
“That’s my way of giving back what I’ve been given,” he said. “To see the frowns and wonderment on their faces turn to smiles and relaxation, well, that’s just not something you can put in a bottle. You have to be here and experience it, because if you can come down that mountain, you can do anything.”
Devlin-Young agreed that it’s gratifying to help disabled skiers stretch beyond their comfort zones to become more confident and more capable. “My goal is to give back some of what skiing gave to me,” he said.
And while he’d love to see some of the veterans he’s working with here achieve their Paralympic dreams, he said what’s happening here on Snowmass Mountain is about a lot more than racing.
“This is the next level: mastering the mountain,” he said. “When you do that, you will be confident and safe—anytime, anyplace and in any condition. And ultimately, that’s what this is all about.”