Devastation to Paralympian, who rebounds
The Aspen Times
U.S. paralympian Joshua Elliott remembers coming off the mountain in Breckenridge feeling “broken” and in tears, thinking he might never be able to relive the sensation of riding a snowboard.
Growing up in Washington, he devoted so much time to snowboarding that he was nearly kicked out of high school and then college, he said.
But the avid snowboarder endured both and went on to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps for 10 years.
While working as a combat engineer in Afghanistan, he was assigned with the task of finding improvised explosive devices in order to clear the path for infantry. On April 18, 2011, a misstep onto a 20-pound, IED changed his life forever: The military sergeant lost both of his legs.
He retired from the military in 2012 and decided to pursue a dream he’d always had of becoming a pilot.
But his aviation aspirations were abruptly halted while he was training at flight school in San Diego.
A stern letter from the Federal Aviation Administration said he wasn’t allowed near aircraft until he was off his pain medication for at least six months.
Having nothing to do for half a year during the winter months, Elliott figured he would try an adaptive-sports camp.
Given his background in snowboarding, he chose to attend the Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, which is one of the nation’s largest winter-sports festivals for people with disabilities.
“My goal was to snowboard again,” he said. “But trying to snowboard without legs was a completely new experience.”
He said he felt like a beginner all over again, which was devastating coming from the level at which he once performed.
After three unsuccessful days on the slopes, he was ready to pack his bags and head back to San Diego when he remembered a promise he had made to one of the physical therapists at the festival.
“She told me I had to try adaptive skiing before I left, and I told her I would but that I’m not going to like it because I’m a snowboarder,” Elliott said.
But, a man of his word, he gave the monoski a chance.
“Within hours, I felt in control again,” he said. “It was the most amazing thing.”
Road to the Paralympics
Elliott continued to adaptive ski every chance he could and was invited to try out for the paralympic development program in Mount Hood, Oregon, just a few months after discovering his passion.
In September 2012, he received a call from Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club asking if he would like to move to Aspen and train professionally for the paralympics.
After four years of training with the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club’s adaptive program, this past month he made the U.S. national team.
“It’s just been incredible,” he said. “The progression, the level of coaching, the support, everything.”
He is competing in his first International Paralympic Committee World Cup Finals — one of para-alpine ski racing’s highest levels of competition.
Laurie Stephens, a paralympic champion and 13-year member of the women’s U.S. national team — said her favorite part about competing professionally is the opportunity she’s had to travel to the world.
“I’ve always loved skiing,” she said. “And I love being able to go to some amazing places and ski some awesome areas.”
Para-alpine skiing has taken her throughout European as well as to Japan and Australia.
She suffers from spina bifida, a congenital birth defect that has left her in a wheelchair her entire life.
For professional adaptive skier Andrew Kurka, who also is competing in the World Cup Finals, the sport has reinvigorated him with a sense of purpose. After a four-wheeler accident years ago left him with a broken back, the former wrestling state champion said he needed an outlet.
“There are a lot of disabled people out there that don’t know what’s possible for them,” he said. “Having a disability and being able to showcase it, and show people what’s possible for them, has given me a chance to change lives and make a difference.
“That’s my favorite part about what I do.”
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