By Donna Bell
Each March since 1987, hundreds of disabled veterans descend on Snowmass Village in Colorado. They are there to participate in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, co-hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Disabled American Veterans.
The clinic draws veterans like Marine Corps veteran Ryan Garza, who, in 2011, suffered a traumatic brain injury and severe damage to his leg while serving a fourth tour in Afghanistan. Only 25 years old at the time, the unthinkable happened fast for Garza when an IED blast rocked the seven-ton truck he was riding in. While doctors at Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Virginia, managed to save the leg, it became obvious a few years later that an amputation was in his best interest and in 2015 he became a below-the-knee amputee. Determined to push his mental and athletic boundaries, Garza decided attending the clinic could be another step toward regaining his life from the struggles he had with alcohol and depression. He chose to tackle snowboarding and after the prosthetics team fitted him for adaptive equipment, his adaptive ski instructors helped him quickly conquer beginner slopes and he moved on to the intermediate blue terrain. “Oh, man! It’s an awesome feeling,” Garza said of his time in Snowmass.
The power of adaptive sports
People with disabilities from all walks of life partake in adaptive sports as a therapeutic tool and a means of recovery. VA encourages disabled veterans to participate in everything from cycling and kayaking to mountain climbing and horseback riding, based on each veteran’s own personal treatment plan and health goals they develop with a VA clinician.
“There are endless benefits to adaptive sports,” said Mary Phillips, acting chief of recreational therapy at VA’s South Texas Health Care System and the chair of adaptive sports sub-committee on VA’s Recreation Therapy and Arts field advisory board.
Phillips points out not only the physical benefits like increased mobility, enhanced endurance and reduced blood pressure—but says equally important are the mental health benefits.
“The healthier you feel the less depressed and anxious you are,” Phillips said. “We see increased motivation and socialization with the veterans who participate.” She pointed out that those veterans, who are used to being part of a bigger team in the military, find a sense of belonging and camaraderie as they cheer each other on. It is a reminder that they are not alone in their struggle. Being able to return to the sports and activities they used to do sends a powerful message that it is possible to overcome their perceived limitations.
VA’s commitment to adaptive sports programs
Since its inception, the Winter Sports Clinic has afforded nearly 10,000 veterans with disabilities such as traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, amputations and blindness to participate in activities many never believed possible. The sports therapy opportunities include Alpine and Nordic skiing, sled hockey, scuba diving, snowmobiling and rock climbing with the end goal of encouraging a healthy, active lifestyle.
In addition, the VA hosts the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Golden Age Games, Golf Clinic, Summer Sports Clinic and Creative Arts Festival—each embracing a philosophy of health promotion and disease prevention through physical, cognitive, emotional, social and leisure activities designed to support each veteran’s chosen life pursuits.
Making the decision to “be busy living”
For some veterans, participating in adaptive sports has literally been a lifesaver. Army veteran John Wade, or Big John, as he is known to his fellow veterans, served from 1991 to 1998 and again from 2004 to 2012.
It was August 2018, in an act of selflessness, that he became an amputee. The brakes failed on a semi he was driving and rather than crushing the cars in his path, he swerved off the road. Seven weeks later, he regained consciousness and discovered he was missing his left leg above the knee. Four suicide attempts later he made a conscious decision to practice self-love.
“I decided I needed to either be busy dying or be busy living,” Wade said, adding that adaptative sports played a big role in his physical and mental recovery—and the reason he now goes by another self-proclaimed nickname—John the Cyborg.
Wade was participating in a recreational therapy program at the Cleveland VA Medical Center when he was approached by a researcher developing an experimental treatment for amputees. Fast forward to November 2022, and Wade was implanted with 64 electrodes in his left thigh with the hope that it would pick up his brain’s electrical signals for movement. The experimental research is being conducted by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Case Western Reserve University, in conjunction with the VA. Eventually, Wade said, he will receive a robotic limb that his brain can control.
Meanwhile, Wade tried out another type of prosthetic at this year’s Winter Sports Clinic—a G-3 Infinity Knee which is designed to allow amputees to participate in outdoor activities. The prosthetic features a pneumatic/hydraulic shock that allows for micro-adjustments on the fly—extraordinarily useful for sports like the downhill skiing Wade tackled while at the clinic.
Continuing the mission to offer adaptive sports to disabled veterans
Teresa Parks, director of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic for the past 11 years, has watched thousands of veterans conquer the Snowmass slopes, creating “Miracles on a Mountainside.”
“The resilience, courage and valor these veterans demonstrated at the clinic is inspiring. They truly embody the rehabilitative challenge the clinic offers and are role models for all veterans,” Parks said. “As long as they have that drive and need to continue their journey to health and mental well-being, the coaches, therapists and staff who volunteer each year will be here to support and cheer them on.”
Donna J. Bell is the director of communications for the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Integrated Veteran Care. She has more than 30 years’ experience as a former reporter, magazine and newspaper editor, marketing content and freelance writer. She is a proud wife, sister and daughter of veterans.