The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge provides therapy for veterans, survivors

Phil Lindeman

After nearly a decade of constant pain, Carlos Figueroa knew he was making the right choice to amputate his leg.

“For me, the turning point was that I was wearing multiple braces just to walk,” said Figueroa, a 36-year-old native of Costa Rica who damaged his left foot in Iraq with the U.S. Army in 2003, shortly after the U.S. sent troops to the Middle East. “I had to rely on a cane or a walker. I couldn’t walk for more than 45 minutes, and when I did, I was in excruciating pain. I saw many of my veteran friends who had amputations and knew I could have a better life if I didn’t keep it.”

On Valentine’s Day in 2012 — six years after Figueroa stepped on an IUD outside of Tikrit, damaging the nerves in his left foot beyond repair — the retired Army sergeant elected to have an amputation. The decision was far from easy, but the constant pain and hassle and equipment needed just to walk was getting in the way of something he was itching to do: compete.

“I’ve always been a real active guy and into sports,” said Figueroa, who grew up in Los Angeles and battled with bouts of paralysis after the IUD explosion. “They weren’t sure how long the paralysis would last, but I knew either way I wanted to do something active.”

The Ski Spectacular

This coming week, from Nov. 28 to Dec. 4, Figueroa joins more than 800 fellow veterans, Paralympians, Boston Marathon survivors and other adaptive athletes for The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge. Now in its 29th year, the long-running program gives monoskiers and adaptive snowboarders the chance to learn from the best of the best: U.S. Paralympic team coaches.

“These are all aspiring athletes — kids who really want to be on the adaptive team,” said Bob Meserve, a former U.S. Paralympic skier and outgoing board president for Disabled Sports USA, the nonprofit behind the Ski Spectacular. “It’s a great way for them to get instruction from some of the best out there, and there are always current or former athletes out on the hill for them to meet. That’s a very cool thing.”

Figueroa’s journey from disabled vet to Paralympic snowboard hopeful started in 2010. It’s when the LA local discovered snow — and monoskiing. On a veterans’ trip to Snowmass, the monoski instructors and coaches said he had a knack for it, he remembered, but sitting in the ski rig wasn’t really his thing. No, he was a born snowboarder before he even knew it.

“As soon as I got feeling back in my leg I knew I wanted to snowboard,” Figueroa said. “I went out with another group the next year and started snowboarding, but even then I used an outrigger to keep me up.”

For an athlete with high hopes, the amputation was a blessing. Figueroa no longer dealt with bulky canes or supports, and the risk of unexpected paralysis dropped to nearly nothing. He soon started racing adaptive boardercross and banked slalom, and after two years training with the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, he moved to Summit County last season to be with Adaptive Action Sports.

Founded by Paralympic medalist Amy Purdy, the Copper Mountain-based organization paired Figueroa with a small crew of fellow vets sharing Paralympic dreams. The turning point for him: getting one-on-one time with elite coaches at the Ski Spectacular.

“The Ski Spectacular has helped me out tremendously,” Figueroa said. “That’s actually what got me chasing the Paralympic dream. After going to the race camp there, it got the notion in my head that this is something I want to chase.”

Work, play, repeat

Figueroa’s isn’t the only story of loss and determination at the Ski Spectacular. Among the participants are more than 100 wounded service members, family and military staff from the U.S. and Great Britain, along with Boston Marathon bombing survivors and U.S. Paralympic champions — the same folks Figueroa looks up to now. This includes medalists Alana Nichols, Evan Strong and Mike Shea, along with non-skiers like Lonnie Bedwell, who was the first blind kayaker to complete the entire length of the Grand Canyon. It’s an eclectic and sprawling family, and it’s one of the reasons board president Meserve returns year after years after year.

“I grew up skiing,” Meserve said of monoskiing, which he picked up after breaking his back in a ski accident at 24 years old. “It was still in my blood, so to speak, and all of my buddies were still skiing. They are now — I’m still skiing with the same group of guys I was skiing with in college.”

For Figueroa, the Ski Spectacular has always been more important than simply getting together with high-level coaches, even if it helps him inch closer to making the Paralympic team. It’s a form of rehab for veterans and other servicemen, and now, as a regular attendee, he goes out of his way to mentor newcomers.

“I know how I felt being in a bubble for so long,” Figueroa said. “A lot of these guys have never seen snow or been on snow. It’s like me: I had never even seen snow until I was 26 years old.”

What a difference a decade makes. Today, as one of the oldest snowboarders with Adaptive Action Sports, Figueroa lives and breathes snow. He trains almost daily with the team and recently returned from the first adaptive snowboarding World Cup event in the Nederlands, where he started earning all-important points a season before the 2018 Paralympic Games. With any luck, he’ll also compete in the inaugural adaptive snowboard races at Dew Tour on Dec. 8.

“At no point does my training feel like work to me,” Figeroa said. “This is my therapy. I don’t have to take medicine or got to the VA. This really is the closest thing to being back in the military: You have a set schedule, a set program, and that has been incredible.”

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