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  • Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

    Instructor Keegan Byrnes helps Navy veteran Clara Valdes with her first experience on a monoski Wednesday at Alpine Meadows.

  • Randy Pench / rpench@sacbee.com

    Clara Valdes, 20, balances on a monoski with help from instructor Keegan Byrnes.

Disabled veterans get weekend of winter sports training at Tahoe-area resorts

Published: Saturday, Apr. 6, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Saturday, Apr. 6, 2013 - 8:28 am

When he had two working legs, Steve Martin didn't care much for skiing.

Having your legs blown up by an improvised explosive devise has a way of changing your perspective on things.

"I hate it, because now I want to do more of it. I bad-mouthed skiing for 43 years," said the proud Phoenix resident after a morning run at Squaw Valley USA.

On Friday, after two days of mixed results skiing on his prosthetic legs, Martin said it finally clicked.

Martin is among 16 wounded warriors participating in a long weekend of winter sports training at North Lake Tahoe ski resorts as part of Disabled Sports USA's Warfighter Sports program.

The group includes injured men and women from all branches of the armed forces, as well as two former active-duty military men – one of whom is Martin – who were injured while working as State Department contractors. The casualties include lost limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries.

The idea is to rebuild their strength, balance and stamina, but also to help them regain their mental edge, said Doug Pringle, president of the Far West chapter of Disabled Sports USA.

"What this is about is letting them know it's still possible to live an active life," Pringle said.

Pringle, who lost a leg during the Vietnam War, said learning to ski with one leg shortly after returning changed his life. He's now trying to help more people feel what he felt.

In 2012, more than 1,200 wounded warriors participated in one of the more than 100 events put on by Warfighter Sports. Disabled Sports USA Far West also conducts training in winter and summer sports year-round.

In addition to using finely tuned, specialized equipment like the seated monoski, instructors use a grab bag of handcrafted tools to help get students on the hill quickly.

The goal is to get them skiing or snowboarding quickly with help, but gradually make them self-sufficient, Pringle said.

One of the tools is a pair of C-clamps connected by a bungee cord that is attached to the skis to prevent them from spreading apart.

The contraption also allows the instructor to slow them down or pull them along with either a rope or a plastic pipe.

The monoski is a chair that sits on a single extra-wide ski. Traditional ski poles are replaced with poles that have mini-skis on the ends.

Friday was Clara Valdes' third day on a monoski. She was tired, but pleased.

"You have the right attitude," said Keegan Byrnes, her instructor. "You're a risk taker."

Valdes, 20, of Petaluma grinned widely as her instructor heaped on the praise during the lunch break.

She said she was an intermediate skier before her knee was injured in a 2011 training accident. She said the condition of her knee has worsened due to lack of treatment and she may have to have her leg amputated.

She now walks with crutches and uses a service animal. She was discharged from the Navy in 2012, after enlisting right out of high school in 2010.

She's had to adjust to what she can't do, such as carrying her own plate. On Friday, Valdes, who is working on a book about wounded warriors, was amazed at what she could do.

"I'm just having a blast; I didn't think I could do this again," she said.

Since Martin had his legs amputated below the knee in 2009, he has been mountain climbing, running marathons, sky diving and scuba diving.

In 2008, while he was in Afghanistan to help to train local security forces, an IED blew up the Humvee in which he was traveling. Except for the period in which he blacked out, he describes the firefight and being dragged to safety in great detail.

He underwent 14 surgeries trying to repair the damage, but he eventually decided his life would be better without his mangled legs.

"I want my mobility. I don't want to be in a wheelchair," he said.

Within a month of getting on his first set of prosthetic legs – he now has nine pairs – he walked his first 5K.

He refuses to sit down while on the slopes, too. He skis on regular skis, with rubber padding stuffed in the boot to accommodate the narrow steel rods that take the place of his lower legs.

There are still times when people tell Martin he can't do things because of his prosthetics – as on a recent visit to Las Vegas, when a zipline operator wouldn't let him ride out of concern that the legs might fall off and strike a spectator below.

He said those incidents just fuel his fire.

Friday he overcame his aversion to the cold.

"This was, for me, a huge eye-opener," he said. "I thought I could never do this once I lost my legs." Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Ed Fletcher



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