Challenge, Struggle and Transformation On the Slopes
Purgatory — some say it’s a place where you purge yourself of your sins and work your way up to heaven. Others say it’s a condition of temporary suffering and torment.
However, those who ski would probably say it’s a resort in southwest Colorado. From what I’ve experienced, it might be all of the above.
More than 25 years ago, I was offered the opportunity to try something new. Little did I know it would be one of the most transformational experiences in my life.
In Durango, Colo., there is a small nonprofit with a giant mission. Through the Adaptive Sports Association (ASA), people with disabilities are offered personalized instruction that is unique to its programs. The ASA is making a difference by creating an opportunity for people who are willing to go beyond their imagined or perceived limits.
The driving force behind ASA is the legacy of Dave Spencer. Dave lost his left leg to cancer while he was attending college in Wisconsin. He wanted to return to skiing as part of his rehabilitation program, and Purgatory Resort in Durango was the perfect location to do so.
Dave got a part-time job as a ski instructor and with the strong encouragement of his first adaptive student, Sue Ehrhardt, in 1982, he began dreaming of a comprehensive ski program for people with disabilities.
They both believed there was a difference between living life and just surviving a disability, so with a new sense of purpose, Sue and her now-late husband, Ross, returned to their home in San Diego and began a nonprofit organization as a means to support Dave’s dream.
In its first 10 years, that nonprofit raised nearly $1 million for adaptive sports programs, including one that provided scholarships for San Diegans with disabilities to attend ASA’s ski program.
This is where I come into the story.
Following my participation at the 1996 Summer Paralympic Games in Atlanta, my time as a member of Team USA was officially over. Until then, I was training several hours each day and logging many miles on the track and open roads in San Diego. It was time for a much-needed break, but I was looking for something to keep me busy.
Ross told me about ASA, but I was skeptical at first because I had already broken my neck once before and chose to remain in San Diego for the year-round warm weather. Snow was not the enemy, but after becoming a quad, I preferred a beach umbrella over a snow shovel.
Don’t get me wrong, I actually love the snow. I grew up on the East Coast and spent plenty of time skiing the slopes of Killington Ski Resort and Stowe in Vermont and Camelback Resort in Pennsylvania.
However, despite my preference for staying safe in the mild weather of Southern California, I accepted the challenge that learning to ski again had to offer.
After a sketchy flight into Durango on a tiny turboprop plane, my host family picked me up in their SUV and took me to their home — a beautiful, rustic house in the mountains surrounded by aspens.
While it was comforting to know complete strangers were willing to open their home to folks like me, I didn’t want to burden them with lots of requests for assistance, such as helping me up a few steps onto their front porch, transferring to an unusually high bed or calling 911 after I face-planted naked onto the bathroom floor. Fortunately, my host family was very accommodating, and after I learned they owned the local brewery, I was confident everything would be OK.
The scholarship included four days of instruction, so I wanted to make the most out of each day. I need to mention that while my instructors wanted me to be comfortable and have fun, they pushed me pretty hard. It definitely required a lot of adaptation and improvisation, but by the second day, I was cruising down the blue runs in my monoski off tether.
Sure, by the end of the week I had fallen quite a bit and became pretty familiar with the “snow snakes” and “tree wells.” Even though I felt pretty banged up, I found just how far and fast I could go while maintaining control and being relatively safe in an environment that’s inherently dangerous. I think we can all agree that nothing is fun if it doesn’t have a little fear factor in it, and I sure did have a great time.
Sadly, soon after this adaptive skiing program began, Dave passed away from cancer in 1986 at age 26. However, his friends and students wouldn’t let his legacy be forgotten.
For over 30 years, thousands of students have passed through the Dave Spencer Center. Furthermore, Ross and Sue’s nonprofit has raised more than $3 million for people with disabilities to pursue their athletic endeavors, including 500 who have attended ASA’s skiing program.
ASA now has more than 50 instructors who are nationally certified through Professional Ski Instructors of America. Additionally, ASA expanded its efforts in 1998 to include several summer programs.
After skiing with ASA for more than 25 years, I’m not sure Purgatory is a place to purge my sins, but I’ve certainly experienced temporary suffering and torment on some of those headwalls. For me, Purgatory has always been a place for transformation.
For more information on ASA, visit asadurango.com