Semper Fi Fund clinics help injured vets like Chad Ohmer pursue Paralympic dreams
It was while skiing with other aspiring Paralympians on Mount Hood in Oregon when Littleton-native Jon Lujan earned the nickname he carries to this day: “Jonny Volcano.”
The 2014 U.S. Paralympic Alpine skier Lujan was given the nickname when he threw a temper tantrum on top of the actual volcano. Several years later, after Lujan carried the American flag during the opening ceremony at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, he met the man who’d rival him for that nickname: Chad Ohmer, a resident of the remote Colorado mountain town of Hartsel.
These days Lujan and Ohmer are friends who’ve bonded thanks to their mutual love for speed on skis and due to the similarities of their military wounds. The injuries ultimately left both of them paralyzed below their knees. This past week, they both volunteered at a three-day ski and snowboard clinic at the Keystone Adaptive Center hosted by the Semper Fi Fund. The fund is a charity that helps provide injured service members with the opportunity to ski and snowboard despite their disabilities. And, at Keystone Resort on Wednesday, the duo harkened back to Ohmer’s first time at a Semper Fi event. It came in 2015 when adaptive skiing coaches noticed Ohmer’s talent, competitive temperment and energy, similar to Lujan.
It’s casual, unofficial experiences like these at Semper Fi clinics that ultimately help skilled veterans like Ohmer harness their talent and find the avenue to chase their Paralympic dreams. The military veterans who competed for Team USA at last year’s 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympics all have a connection to the Semper Fi Fund.
“They said, ‘you’ve got to meet this guy Chad,’” Lujan said. “‘He’s Jonny Volcano Junior!’ I think he’s a little bit better at controlling his temper than I was, but he’s still pretty opinionated.”
If you fast forward four years from that fateful Semper Fi clinic in 2015, Ohmer, now 31, found himself this past week volunteering on skis at a Semper Fi clinic at Keystone.
It came in the midst of his ongoing quest to represent Team USA in Alpine skiing at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China. His love of skiing takes him all across the state, from team training days in Aspen, to solo powder days at the high-alpine bowls at Breckenridge Ski Resort to pondering the possibilities of backcountry skiing at his remote log cabin home in Hartsel, not too far south of Fairplay.
“Being out there and letting everything out of my head,” Ohmer said at Keystone on Wednesday, “that’s what I need.”
If you rewind seven years, though, a then-24-year-old Ohmer found himself not in a cloud of snow but rather a cloud of dust, hurtling down to the Afghan sand without his left leg and with a chunk of his right thigh ripped from the bone. Ohmer found himself in this tragic predicament after a fallen mate he was trying to help set off an improvised explosive device, or an IED.
Ohmer had initially raced up to check on the soldier from a 15-foot-deep Taliban transport hole Ohmer and his fellow infantrymen were occupying. While attempting to render aid to the soldier, who had set off a previous IED that injured him initially, the soldier set off that second IED. Absorbing most of the blast, that soldier ultimately died. Ohmer nearly did too.
“I didn’t feel anything until I realized I was flying through the air at the time,” Ohmer said. “Then I realized it was me who had gotten blown up. I landed down in the hole, set myself up, assessed the situation. I see a leg sitting there right next to me and I thought it was the guy — my teammate’s. And then I realized, once I started assessing myself, I realized that was my leg. I picked it up, put it on my lap, and started giving myself medical attention because nobody was around me or could get to me. And, looking at my right thigh, my leg gone, I was like, ‘I either gotta fix myself, or I’m going to bleed out and die.’”
Nearly 60 limb-salvage surgeries and three years later, Ohmer had a life breakthrough when he found a type of ankle-foot-brace technology that enabled him to walk again. With that lifting his spirits for the future, it was just one month later when Ohmer took part in that first Semper Fi Fund adaptive ski program in 2015 where the high-level American coaches noticed him and compared him to Lujan.
Lujan himself was left paralyzed from his knees down years prior due to an error during spinal surgery. Lujan initially suffered the spinal injury in Iraq in 2003 when his military vehicle was shot at during the U.S. army’s push toward Baghdad. The enemy fire forced the driver of the vehicle to swerve off the road into a ditch. The move ejected Lujan vertically before he smashed back down in a seated position with such force that he herniated two discs in his back.
At that pivotal Semper Fi clinic in 2015, it wasn’t only Lujan who was made aware of Ohmer. Truth be told, Ohmer was also made aware of Lujan. Those same coaches that dubbed Ohmer “Jonny Volcano Junior” told Ohmer that there was a guy on the U.S. Paralympic team, Lujan, that was in the exact same situation as Ohmer in terms of his specific injuries.
There is no official pipeline that provides the U.S. Paralympic team with its best talent, the kind that brings home gold, silver or bronze medals. But, in terms of finding and helping talented military veterans, the Semper Fi Fund and its clinics are the closest thing to a medium that spots talented veterans before encouraging them to think about the Paralympic process. Just this week at Keystone, Lujan said he saw a couple of vets who might have what it takes to pursue the process.
Lujan said, typically, he’ll watch clinic participants ski down the hill a couple of times before offering up some pointers. If they exude coachability and take to the advice, he knows they may be the kind of individual to tell others about.
“There are a lot of people that think they can make it to the elite level,” Lujan said, “but I guess the biggest way to see it is the natural skiing ability. Body position is huge. When you see somebody that has a natural ability to get into a stacked body position, you want to work with that athlete.”
Ohmer was once one of those coachable new athletes. After a knee injury prevented Ohmer from qualifying for the Pyeongchang 2018 Paralympics, Lujan now believes there is “no doubt” Ohmer will represent the U.S. at Beijing 2022. To get there, Ohmer will need to qualify and show his skill on the World Cup circuit.
Looking ahead, Ohmer says the “big thing” for him is to walk with Team USA at the opening ceremony at the 2022 Paralympics, like Lujan did in Sochi in 2014. Ohmer knows he can’t serve his country anymore as a warrior, a fighter. But this, this is the next way he can.
“I’m just trying to pay it forward,” he said.
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