In any athletic endeavor, there is always going to be a range of ability shared by all individuals involved. The 15th annual Hartford Ski Spectacular at Breckenridge is all about exploring the depth of individual ability, and transcending physical and mental setbacks.
Two-time Paralympic gold medalist John Davis, 31, knows all about this. Davis was an avid skier, skateboarder, surfer, cyclist and Motocross racer until he was paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. Although some of his injuries were life-threatening, Davis barely missed a beat. If anything, the accident only served to stoke the fire of his dare-devil aspirations. He became a proficient mono-skier at the Breck Ski Spectacular 11 years ago, went on to win two gold medals at the Paralympic Games racing for the U.S. Disabled Team, custom-designed an off-road wheelchair to compete in downhill races on the National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) circuit, and now focuses on helicopter skiing and freeriding.
Davis will be one of many professional disabled athletes on hand at the Ski Spectacular this week, and will race in the Corporate Challenge race Saturday. Mainly, he said, his role in the Spectacular is to demonstrate the dreams that some disabled individuals might otherwise see as impossible to reach.
“I’m the lead-by-example guy,” Davis said. “It’s a possibility week for people. I started out skiing there, and it was a real motivator to me to see what some of these guys and gals could do. (The Ski Spectacular) is more of a festival, a chance to look how far you can go and look at what the possibilities are. There are people getting hurt and trying to deal with different disabilities every day. Skiing in general is a real freedom for people in my situation. If anyone wants to grab me and take a run with me, that’s where I’m useful – to show people how much they can do.”
Davis commentated at the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City last February, and has shifted his alpine race career to freeriding. He said that reaching speeds up to 45 miles per hour on his sit-ski and catching 40 feet of air in a downhill race has prompted him to take his talents into the half-pipe and into the extreme side of skiing.
“I won’t be on the World Cup circuit this year,” he said. “It’s not that I’m bored of it, It’s just a transition. I’ll always have those race experiences to help me get better at the next thing I want to do. Some of the guys were talking about boardercross and freeride events – skiing the steep and deep. It takes a lot of strength, especially with the varying degrees of disability. You can really get yourself into trouble, but that’s part of the thrill.”
The Ski Spectacular kicks off tonight with the opening banquet, and continues through Saturday. It is the nation’s largest winter sports festival for individuals with disabilities.
Hundreds of instructors will be on hand conducting clinics for adaptive programs, including those from the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center (BOEC), which is renowned throughout the world as one of the premiere facilities for adaptive programs. It is a branch of Disabled Sports USA, which puts on the Ski Spectacular in conjunction with The Hartford Financial Services Group.
Also, some of the best athletes from the U.S. Disabled Ski Team will compete Thursday and Friday in slalom and giant slalom races, including five-time Paralympic gold medalist Chris Waddell, who is considered by the U.S. Ski Team to be “the Babe Ruth of monoskiing.” Fellow U.S. Disabled Team skier Sandy Dukat will also compete. Dukat was born without a femur, and had her right leg amputated above the knee when she was 4 years old. A cyclist, runner and world-record breaking swimmer, Dukat learned to ski on a three-track for the first time at the Breck Ski Spectacular five years ago. She began racing World Cups with the U.S. Disabled Team two years ago and in February, won two bronze medals in the Paralympic super-G and slalom races. She said she is sometimes startled by her own achievements.
“I guess I’m a good example of just jumping into a sport and doing well without having a lot of background in it,” she said. “The Ski Spectacular is always going to have a special place for me. Every time I go back, I wonder who’s going to be the next Sandy Dukat. There is probably some woman learning and waiting to see what’s in front of her. Sometimes I can’t believe people would look to me for instruction. I feel, if I can set any example, it would be the art of dedication. Your attitude and passion will be what makes it happen.”
For those who have never witnessed a disabled ski race or an adaptive ski lesson, it’s one of the most inspiring spectacles they’ll ever see.
“It’s truly amazing, – you come out to Breckenridge, and at the base of the Beaver Run chairlift, there’s about 100 wheelchairs. These athletes just leave them there, get on their mono and bi-skis, and off they go,” said Rich Cook, executive director of the BOEC. “These people are unbelievably talented athletes.”
There are rumors that The Today Show is going to make a trip to Breckenridge to cover the event, and Bill Johnson, the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in men’s downhill skiing in 1984, will make a guest appearance. Johnson suffered a severe brain injury when he hit a pole in a race in March 2001 as he was competing for a spot on the 2002 Olympic Team at age 40. He nearly bit off his tongue in the crash, and is now in the process of his own rehabilitation. He will visit disabled athletes learning to ski this week, and encourage them to think about what they can do instead of what they cannot do.
“The Ski Spectacular is our premiere event,” said Kristin Flyntz, media director for The Hartford. “It’s a great way to bring people together – able-bodied and disabled – and level the playing field.”
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