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Collaboration from VA, U.S. Air Force Veteran Advances Adaptive Sports

U.S. Air Force Veteran Peter Axelson skis down hill during the 38th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. Axelson, who is a five-time world champion, is the inventor of the Arroya, which is the first chairlift-compatible mono-ski with a shock absorber. (Photo by Chris Kelly, VA Media Team)

By Medina Ayala-Lo, Public Affairs Specialist, Bay Pines VA Healthcare System

SNOWMASS, Colo. – Five decades ago, earning the title of “innovator” wasn’t in the cards for U.S. Air Force Veteran Peter Axelson. But after surviving a catastrophic accident at the Air Force Academy in 1975, he pivoted toward the field of engineering. He didn’t realize it at the time, but Axelson’s chosen career would spark an evolution in adaptive sports technology that continues to have far-reaching impacts.

Axelson is the inventor of the Arroya, which is the first chairlift-compatible mono-ski with a shock absorber.

"The addition of the shock absorber made it possible for users of the device to experience improved range of motion on the slopes,” Axelson said. “I’ve been uniquely prepared to do the work that I’ve done, and I can’t imagine any other path that I could have been on. I’m just very thankful for all that I’ve been able to do.”

As a young cadet in the academy, Axelson was on track to become a navigator for the early experimental B-1 bombers. Then one day, while participating in a rock-climbing exercise with an instructor and a fellow cadet, his aspirations were shattered after falling 165 feet to the ground.

“I was very thankful to survive the training accident that I was injured in,” Axelson said. “My classmate and I survived, but our instructor was killed. I had one bone in my vertebrae explode into thousands of pieces – the doctors said there wasn’t a piece bigger than a pea.”

After extensive surgery and months of recovery, Axelson enrolled in Stanford University. While there, he began working on the project that revolutionized the way people in wheelchairs participate in winter sports.

“My version of the sit-ski began as a student project, with some urging from my professor,” Axelson said. “Around the time I was developing the product, the rehab engineering center at the VA in Palo Alto was established and I became one of the first employees there. The VA funded the creation of the first 20 mono-skis.”

After undergoing rigorous testing, Axelson’s mono-ski was officially debuted approximately one year after the initial prototype was designed. In the years that followed, the inventor enjoyed new successes as an athlete, medaling five times in three world championships. Eventually, the self-described “winter sports guy” utilized the technology he created to guide fellow Veterans toward discovering miracles on the mountain during the Winter Sports Clinic.

“I really enjoyed being an instructor, but it wasn’t really possible to teach and participate in the activities,” Axelson stated. “Finally, someone suggested that I come back as a Veteran and I’ve never looked back.”

Axelson continued, “I always try to set new goals for myself to beat during the next year I attend. It's awesome to see so many Veterans participating in the Winter Sports Clinic, and to know that adaptive technology is such a major component of their lives.”

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