Rehab at winter sports clinic Wanted: Wounded vets
By PAT GRAHAM
SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. — So there he was, chatting with Bode Miller about how a sit-ski for disabled athletes could be revamped and made more sturdy.
That an Olympic gold medalist cared enough to talk shop about specially designed ski equipment impressed Paralympian Sean Halsted, who's paralyzed from the waist down.
What happened next, though, totally surprised Halsted.
A group of disabled athletes approached the two at a winter sports clinic, star-struck and eager to socialize.
Not with Miller, but with Halsted.
At this event, Halsted was the rock star. Being a Paralympian and featured in a recent McDonald's commercial will tend to boost your profile.
"Got a little more attention than normal," the 29-year-old Halsted said. "I'm usually just one of the regular Joes."
Halsted was one of about 350 disabled veterans participating last week in a clinic that promotes rehabilitation through sports like adaptive Alpine events, cross country skiing, sled hockey, snowmobiling and curling. The veterans in attendance had disabilities such as amputations, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries and visual impairments.
Among them was L. Tammy Duckworth, a former Honolulu resident and McKinley High graduate who is now assistant secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Duckworth lost both of her legs in 2004 when a helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade just north of Baghdad.
She was skiing last week for just the second time, taking quite a few spills on her way down.
That only made her more determined.
"I don't think I'm at Bode Miller's level yet," said Duckworth, a Purple Heart recipient. "But this was a blast."
Through this program, veterans learn the healing power of sports — at least that was the case for Halsted.
The Air Force veteran was paralyzed when he fell nearly 40 feet out of a helicopter during a search-and-rescue training exercise in 1998.
Three years later, Halsted attended his first winter clinic, where he discovered Nordic skiing. He qualified for the Paralympic Winter Games in March, finishing seventh in the sitting 10-kilometer race, ninth in the 15K and 10th in the 1K sprint.
Not only that, but Halsted starred in a McDonald's commercial, earning him the nickname "McNugget Man."
"The commercial was really cool on a number of levels — that they chose to use a Paralympian, in a wheelchair, as a regular athlete," said Halsted, who lives in Rathdrum, Idaho. "They didn't just focus on the chair."
At the sports clinic, it's not about the chair, either. Or any other disability.
"Here, you're one of many. It's about feeling normal, not disabled," Halsted said.
Miller was brought in one day to ski with the group, but was running late.
In fact, former Army specialist Luke Murphy gave up waiting for him.
Why wait when the mountain beckons?
So Murphy climbed into his sit-ski, grabbed his support poles and took off.
Maybe later he could catch up with Miller, whom he considers an inspiration.
"Bode didn't get the honor to ski with me," the 28-year-old Murphy said, grinning.
Murphy's life was forever altered on April 25, 2006, at 1 a.m.
His outfit was returning to their base in Baghdad when the Humvee in which he was riding tripped an explosive device. Murphy lost his right leg and muscle in his left. He spent a year at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
While there, Murphy was shown a video of the winter sports clinic, and encouraged to attend.
"I thought it was crazy, but I came out anyway," said Murphy, who's working on his political science degree at Florida State. "I even came without my wheelchair, the first time I went anywhere without it. I realized that if I can do this in the Rocky Mountains, I can go back to Florida and do anything. It gave me a little ego back."
For John Register, the clinic offers something more — a chance to scout potential talent. As head of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympic military program, Register is always on the lookout for athletes.
He knows the meaningful role sports can play in healing. It worked for him.
Register was an All-American in track at the University of Arkansas. After earning his degree, he joined the Army, in part so he could continue to train through the World Class Athlete Program. He hoped to make the U.S. Olympic squad as a hurdler for the 1996 Atlanta Games.
On May 17, 1994, while in the middle of a light workout, Register landed wrong on his left leg, hyperextending the knee so badly that an artery was severed.
Days later, the leg was amputated above the knee.
Register still made it to Atlanta, only as a swimmer in the Paralympic Games, anchoring the 400 medley relay team.
Four years later in Sydney, Register went back again, this time as a long jumper, where he earned silver.
"There's a lot of opportunities for veterans, and we're trying to showcase that," Register said. "These vets are healing together, having a good time together. This is powerful."