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Ski instructors: “You get more than you give.”

Photo: Volunteer ski instructors Tom Holmes and Paul Skluzacek take a photo with Marine Veteran John Patricio `before heading out to ski at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass, Colorado.

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

SNOWMASS, Colo. – At the top of the mountain on day four of the 2024 National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic, three men in their 50s shared a cathartic cry. Marine Veteran John Patricio had just shared his story with his instructors, Tom Holmes and Paul Skluzacek, and the moment brought them to tears.

Holmes, an Air Force Veteran, has been a volunteer instructor with the Winter Sports Clinic for 28 years, and this emotional moment with Patricio is his favorite memory in nearly three decades of incredible memories.

“John is an amazing human, and on the mountain, you can feel vulnerable,” said Holmes. “He told us he used to cry from being in a dark place, but today it was a happy cry.”

Holmes is one about 180 of adaptive ski and snowboard instructors who come to the Winter Sports Clinic from more than 50 adaptive ski programs across North America. The instructors play a crucial role in the clinic, ensuring that Veterans can safely learn how to ski or snowboard with adaptive equipment. Nearly every Veteran at the clinic is accompanied by two instructors on the slopes.

Paul Dowsett, an instructor with the Ontario Track3 Adaptive Sports Association, has been volunteering as an instructor at the Winter Sports Clinic for eight years.

“This event brings together the best adaptive ski and snowboard instructors from Canada and the U.S., so this is the place that we can learn from each other,” said Dowsett. “This is like cramming three or four seasons of learning and innovating at home into one week.”

As volunteers, the ski instructors often take leave from work and travel to Snowmass at their own expense. They network with other adaptive programs and learn about new equipment and techniques -- a valuable professional opportunity. But working with Veterans is what keeps them coming back.

“You don’t know how great it is until you’re here,” said Dowsett. “Once I came the first year, I knew that this would be the event that, as long as I’m physically able, I’m coming back.”

For Holmes, getting to share the in the recovery of fellow Veterans is what he treasures about the event.

“For therapy, there’s a difference between checking in at the hospital and checking in on the chairlift. We get to reconnect with nature here, and it’s awesome to get to share that with other Veterans,” said Holmes. “You get so much more than you give here.”

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