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Miracles on a Mountainside:  The History of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

Every year since 1987 (except in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), hundreds of Veterans living with limited mobility due to physical and neurological conditions, have headed to the Rocky Mountains to attend the annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic (Winter Sports Clinic) hosted by VA and DAV (Disabled American Veterans) at Snowmass, Colorado.

 

The Winter Sports Clinic officially started in 1987, however its roots date back to 1982 with a recreational therapist, a Veteran in a wheelchair and a wild idea.

 

Santo "Sandy" Trombetta, a recreational therapist from Grand Junction VA Medical Center (VAMC), sought to improve the quality of life of Veterans and make the world more accessible to them. Trombetta looked to the nearby mountains for inspiration and soon found answers when a former director of DAV, who served in the 10th Mountain Division, invited Trombetta to witness adaptive skiing, which was then in its infancy.

Trombetta’s introduction to the adaptive skiing program at nearby Powderhorn Mountain Resort opened a new path for his patients to experience the outdoors during the winter months. He felt one patient in particular, a former athlete, could take on the challenge. 

 

The Veteran was unable to walk due to Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system. Before his diagnosis in 1981, the Veteran was an athlete who loved golf and softball. When he began receiving care at the Grand Junction VAMC, this once-active Veteran could barely stand and needed a wheelchair for mobility. This didn’t stop Trombetta from taking his patient out on the golf course. During the swing, Trombetta helped his patient stand by holding him up, enabling the Veteran to play a sport he loved once again.

 

It wasn't easy to convince the Veteran, who could barely stand, to strap on skis and go down a mountain.  He thought Trombetta had lost his mind.  Out on the mountain, the adaptive ski instructors taught Trombetta alongside his patient. It took several instructors to get the Veteran up on two skis with two handheld outriggers, crutch-like poles with short skis, known as four-tracking. There were a lot of falls, but everyone remained determined. By the end of the day, the Veteran was riding the chair lift, a success unto itself.

Neither the Veteran nor Trombetta would have likely imagined that this single act of inclusion and dedication would pave the way for a program customized to encourage Veterans with mobility impairments to learn and enjoy adaptive winter activities. That day signified the unofficial beginning of the Winter Sports Clinic.

 

Word spread quickly about the success of Trombetta’s adaptive ski program at Grand Junction VAMC. Over five years, roughly 100 Veterans with varying degrees of ability experienced the slopes with Trombetta. Trombetta’s original patient continued to pursue adaptive sports after that day on the slopes in 1982. While competing at a regional wheelchair games event in 1985, the Veteran talked about Grand Junction VAMC’s program to event officials. He spoke about his experiences and said Grand Junction, Colorado, was the perfect site for a national Veterans winter sports event.

 

Grand Junction VAMC’s unique initiative became a national VA event in 1987. Despite skepticism from many health professionals of the era, the clinic underscored the importance of physical activity for persons of all abilities. The clinic was such a success that participants petitioned VA to make Grand Junction VAMC the permanent host for the event.  Then in 1991, after receiving consistent local support from its chapters, DAV joined the clinic as a co-presenter.

 

While Grand Junction VAMC has been the host from the start, a few ski resorts around Colorado have been the Winter Sports Clinic site over the years. Gathering hundreds of people with varying mobility issues in the middle of ski country is a logistical marvel. Selecting an appropriate location is key.

 

Powderhorn Mountain was the first Winter Sports Clinic site. Not only was it close to Grand Junction, but it also provided accessibility that many other resorts did not offer at the time. In 1990, when Powderhorn’s future was uncertain, VA decided to move the clinic to Snowmass. This was temporary, as the clinic moved again in 1993 to Crested Butte, near Gunnison, Colorado. At this point, the number of participants had more than doubled to around 200, supported by about 100 instructors. Crested Butte was Winter Sports Clinic’s home for nearly a decade until 2001, when the resort sold. With two of the three resorts VA selected facing uncertainty, VA moved the Winter Sports Clinic back to Snowmass in 2001 and has been there ever since.

 

The weeklong clinic allows Veterans with limited mobility to challenge their perceived limitations. The camaraderie and therapeutic nature of the clinic allows Veterans to experience freedom in a safe, supportive environment. It also allows Veterans to embrace their competitive side, explore their limits, connect and have fun.

 

Veterans at the Winter Sports Clinic can experience Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, snowboarding, curling and snowmobiling. However, there is more to the event than fun in the snow. Veterans can also take part in kayaking, scuba diving, rock climbing, archery and fly fishing. Additionally, educational programming such as self-defense and public speaking is also offered.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the decades, adaptive equipment has improved to increase comfort and accessibility, another example of how VA innovations and research vastly improve the quality of life for Veterans.  At the Winter Sports Clinic, Veterans learn about adaptive equipment and receive instruction on new activities with the support of coaches, prosthesis experts, instructors and volunteers. After a Veteran receives individualized adjustments and fittings at the clinic, they can return to their local VA health care teams with new information and opportunities to continue with recreational therapy and adaptive sports.

 

The Winter Sports Clinic has grown in scope and rapidly evolved. In 1987, 90 veterans from 27 states and about 20 volunteers participated in the first official Winter Sports Clinic. Programming and outreach expanded when DAV joined as a co-sponsor in 1991. Now, around 400 Veterans attend each year, with Veterans aged 19 to nearly ninety years old traveling to the clinic. The Winter Sports Clinic is made possible with the support of around 600 volunteers.

 

As the Winter Sports Clinic has grown, so has its impact to further connect Veterans to adaptive sports. Since 2006, a partnership with the United States Olympic Committee established an opportunity for advanced Winter Sports Clinic athletes to train as potential candidates for the U.S. Disabled Ski Team and Paralympics.

Today, with around 400 participants and over 600 volunteers, the clinic celebrates the resilience of the human spirit, welcoming Veterans, their families and their caretakers to Snowmass every year.

 

"Equipment History of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic"

 

GJ VAMC: Grand Junction VAMC History Stories - Miracles on a Mountainside: The History of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic 

 

VAHO Online Exhibition: Adaptive Exhilaration: Equipment from the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic

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