Olivero: Disabled Sports USA event leads to sports editor’s surname connection with adaptive athlete
BRECKENRIDGE — When your surname isn’t a common one it’s not everyday you meet someone who shares the same last name as you, let alone a similar backstory. After writing last week’s column about Cameron Kerr — the military veteran and below-knee amputee who took part in The Hartford Ski Spectacular Disabled Sports USA adaptive program in Breckenridge — I received an email from a man named Thomas Olivero.
Thomas, 51, wrote of how he too was from New York originally and took part in the adaptive winter sports program at Breckenridge’s Beaver Run last week. I wrote him back it’d be great if we could touch base by phone for this week’s column. He was game.
Heading into the holiday season and some days back at home in New York, the conversation with Thomas came at a great time. Thomas explained how he is an outpatient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center who participates in the sports adaptive rehab program as an active duty member of the U.S. Navy.
Thomas, a Nurse Corps officer, suffered his injury in September 2017 as the victim of a hit-and-run accident while riding his motorcycle home from his work with the Navy in Maryland. The accident resulted in multiple injuries, namely a shattered right ankle that eliminated the range of motion in his ankle. He now walks using an adaptive device called an intrepid dynamic exoskeletal orthosis, or an IDEO. The IDEO is a carbon fiber leg brace designed to alleviate the debilitating chronic pain of traumatic lower leg injuries for many veterans across the country, from those with shrapnel injuries to their legs from improvised explosive devices to an injury like Thomas’.
Thomas said he found out in October from Walter Reed that he’d be attending the Disabled Sports USA Ski Spectacular event. The Rocky Mountains, let alone Breckenridge, was a place he’d never been before. At the end of his week learning how to downhill ski, Nordic biathlon and curl in Breckenridge, Thomas said his time at the Ski Spectacular helped him with his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It really blew me away,” Thomas said. “It’s not that I didn’t expect it, I knew these programs are really good, but I didn’t realize how much I would get out of it. Not just learning how to ski with my injury, but also meeting other folks and learning about them. Hearing their stories and how they overcame their challenges was really inspirational. I also suffer from PTSD, depression and anxiety. So, for me, to be with a lot of people in a crowd, it’s difficult. But stuff like this program helps me with that. That kind of brought me out of my shell more this past week.”
The moment Thomas may remember best from his time in Breckenridge came not with the program, but out on his own. His first night in town, Thomas walked through downtown Breckenridge’s Main Street. The Christmas lights amid all the snowbanks made him think he was walking along the fictional street of Bedford Falls, New York, in the classic 1946 film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
It’s not Bedford Falls, New York — rather Bedford, New York — where Thomas grew up and where he and I found out we had more of a connection. Before he joined the Navy out of high school in 1987, Thomas grew up in the Bedford and Mount Kisco area of New York’s Westchester County, a northern suburb of New York City.
The more Thomas and I chatted the more we realized our back stories were similar. Bedford was a town 20 minutes south of where I grew up, a town I played basketball in at his high school, Fox Lane, where Thomas played baseball. He grew up a New York Yankees fan with his father Louis taking him to the old Yankee Stadium to watch Thomas’ favorite players, from Thurman Munson to Dave Winfield.
As an adult, Thomas’ favorite of all was the feisty Paul O’Neil, a player I appreciated for his Michael-Jordan-like competitivesness. Thomas’ favorite Yankee memory was a pennant race game his father brought him to. It reminded me of the last game at Yankee Stadium I attended with my father, the final day game in the stadium’s history, when Robinson Cano hit a walk-off single to secure a victory.
Thomas then said something I wholeheartedly agreed with: that the Yankees should have never replaced the old stadium with a new one.
“There was nothing like the old one,” he said, “especially when the place got rocking.”
That old stadium was the heartbeat of the South Bronx, a neighborhood Thomas’ Puerto Rican family lived in after his grandparents immigrated from the San Juan area of Puerto Rico. A lot like me, he grew up a light-skinned boy of Puerto Rican descent, someone who never quite picked up Spanish fluently while most always being confused as Italian. I could relate.
“Depending on who was asking, I would let him believe it,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I didn’t want to get beat up.”
Come Christmas time, Thomas remembered feasting with his family on traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, like rice and beans, tostones and pasteles — a type of tamale encased in green banana masa and wrapped in banana leaves.
As I’m ready to return to New York for the holidays, one of the things I most look forward to is to make and enjoy pasteles with family. I hope Thomas does the same. I also hope you all spend time engaging in your family’s customs, from sports to food, that you fondly grew up with, whatever those traditions may be.
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