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Blind Veteran enjoys being back on the slopes

Army Veteran Robert Sanchas skis catches some air on the slopes at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado on April 4, 2024.

By Janelle Beswick, Interim Public Affairs Officer, VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System

SNOWMASS, Colo. – With seven gold medals and 20 marathons under his belt, you would guess that Robert Sanchas was a lifelong athlete. But after an accident in the Army led to vision loss, he lived a sedentary life.

Sanchas served in the Army from 1986 to 1994, primarily as a signal support system specialist. He was stationed at Fort Bragg in 1988 when a bungee cord lacerated his eye. His vision gradually declined until he was declared legally blind in 2010.

After Sanchas’ doctor at the VA Providence Health Care System encouraged him to lose weight, he found a walking group to join. Eventually, they helped him start to jog, then run. He also joined the VA MOVE Program, which introduced him to VA recreation therapy.

“Recreation therapy got me to try things I never thought possible,” said Sanchas. “I try every sport. I don’t love all of them, but you won’t know until you try.”

Sanchas completed his first marathon in November 2017, and he will run his 21st on April 21, 2024, in London, England. He competed in the Military World Rowing and Kayaking Championship in 2021 in Hungary and 2022 in England, where he earned gold medals in the 2 kilometer, 1 minute, and 5 minute indoor rowing races and a kayaking race. 

His recreation therapist got him back on the ski slopes after 20 years, and skiing is his true love. Throughout the COVID 19 pandemic, the recreation therapy program held Zoom classes teaching participants about adaptive skiing equipment, which helped him feel connected and keep his stress down. In 2022, he came to his first National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado.

“The Winter Sports Clinic is amazing because everyone asks you ‘what do you like? What can you do? What do you WANT to do?’ No one assumes what you can do because you are blind,” said Sanchas.

His first year, he enjoyed trying sled hockey for the first time. He wore a headset while a helper gave him directions for where to go. His second year, he learned about blind hockey, which uses a large metal puck on ball bearings so that it can be heard. Sanchas enjoyed the independence that blind hockey offered him.

At the 2024 Winter Sports Clinic, Sanchas is looking forward to snowshoeing with his service dog, Kent. The yellow lab participates in sports with Sanchas any time he can.

Sanchas credits volunteers at events like the Winter Sports Clinic with inspiring him to help other disabled Veterans find their way to recreation therapy and adaptive sports. He volunteers for several roles with organizations where he helps Veterans get involved in adaptive sports, and he encourages disabled Veterans to reach out to recreation therapy at their VA or apply for the Adaptive Sports and Arts programs directly online.

“If you don’t stretch out your hand, nobody can guide you in the right direction. A lot of us gave up on life. You lost your limb, or you lost your vision, and your whole life was uprooted. Society projects that you’re useless, because in your mind you’re broken. You’re not broken, you’ve got a crack, but get some duct tape and figure out a new way to get around it.”

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