Downhill toward hope in Summit County
Ryan Summerlin December 7, 2012
Orlando Gill lost his right leg in 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade tore through his body.
The U.S. Army sergeant was devastated. Dark thoughts filled his mind. It was the end of his second tour in Iraq, but it felt bigger than that. It felt like the end of hope.
“When I first got to the hospital I asked myself ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ Everything was very negative: I saw my military career ending and never thought I’d be able to do the things I used to do,” Gill said. “I couldn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
Then he met Kirk Bauer.
Bauer, the executive director of Disabled Sports USA, visited Gill while he was rehabbing at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, D.C. Bauer offered an unusual prescription to salve the solder’s physical and psychological wounds – snowboarding.
Gill had snowboarded before, but never seriously.
But in 2005, on his first day back on the slopes, the sport took on a new meaning.
He was apprehensive and still felling negative about his future. Gill’s lesson with Mark Summers, an adaptive sports instructor, started out with Gill struggling and failing to get on the Magic Carpet that would tow him to the beginner’s ski hill.
“I couldn’t get on the Magic Carpet lift, so Mark told me to give him my board and to get on without it. That all went fine and then at the top he started strapping in my bindings and I stopped him. I said ‘You know what, I’ve done this before, I know how to do this,’ so I took a little hop and took off,” Gill said.
Shortly after that, Gill realized, without the back-leg control, he didn’t know how he was going to stop his board.
“So I was just flying down the hill and he was screaming after me. I started getting closer and closer to the boundary fencing and just sort of threw myself at it to stop, and that sent me cart-wheeling down the mountain,” Gill said.
As Summers approached him, Gill couldn’t contain his laughter, much to his instructor’s relief.
“The point I was just bouncing all over the mountain, that was the turning point for me, that was the happy point,” Gill said.
Since then, Gill started working for Disabled Sports USA as a field representative.
“The program has been awesome – not only have I improved myself, I’ve also gotten to see other veterans improve,” he said. “There’s that point where they’re really sad because of what has happened to them, but then you get to see them be happy again out on the hill, and that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about seeing that happiness return.”
The job has given Gill a sense of purpose that recently led him to Summit County for The Hartford Ski Spectacular. Going on now through Sunday at Beaver Run Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort, the event aims to help what event organizers call “wounded warriors” enjoy the slopes with the aid of adaptive equipment.
The Spectacular, in its 25th year, is hosting 135 disabled veterans and their families through the War Fighter Sports Program.
“There are many people of the wounded warrior population that are here learning how to ski or snowboard for the first time and there are several that are returning to the sport after their injuries,” Bauer said. “What’s so great about this, is no matter what their injury – we have some triple amputees on adaptive equipment – they are all out on the slopes right now.”
Bauer, an amputee and war veteran himself, said disabled winter athletes are able to adapt and learn how to ski or snowboard just as quickly – if not more so – than an able-bodied person.
“Because of the development of sophisticated adaptive equipment and highly trained instructors, we can get a person with any type of disability out on the slopes,” Bauer said. “The progression of the adaptive equipment and the technology we have available now makes this possible for anyone.”
The eight-day event, sponsored by The Hartford, a founding partner of U.S. Paralympics, is the nation’s largest winter sports festival for individuals with physical disabilities. More than 800 participants, ranging in ability from first-time skiers to members of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team, have come together for the Spectacular.
“The Hartford Ski Spectacular continues to be an amazing event,” said Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics, United States Olympic Committee. “It’s about so much more than skiing. The relationships, mentors and exposure to sports for people with physical disabilities are life-changing.”
Participants, wounded warriors, Paralympic hopefuls and event organizers agree the event is life-changing.
Justin Widhalm, a Paralympic hopeful, said the program gave him his life back after he lost limbs during a tour in Iraq.
“I get to do the things that I dreamt of doing before,” Widhalm said. “This program saved my life and everyone involved has encouraged me and pushed me to improve myself. It’s given me the confidence to pursue my dreams even after my service left me disabled.”
For Bauer, who came up with the idea for the program in 1967, it’s the nurturing attitudes of the athletes and the gratitude from veterans and their families that make the experience worth while.
“It’s a life-changer because when paraplegics or anyone with a disability comes out of this event, at the end of the week they have a different view of themselves,” Bauer said. “They know they’re capable again. They’ve increased their confidence and they once again have hope for the future.”