Wounded warriors make tracks at SnoFest

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Christopher DeWitt
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Overcoming challenges can sometimes be a daunting task, but that didn't stop 16 wounded warriors from taking to the slopes to try skiing Jan. 29 and 30.

Soldiers with various types of debilitating injuries took part in this year's SnoFest event thanks to the help of the Keystone Adaptive Center.

The Adaptive Center's goal of empowering outdoor experiences doesn't just get Soldiers onto the slopes; it sets a benchmark for any challenges in the future.

"Listening to one of our students today talk about how much getting out here and trying new things really sets him up for all the new challenges that he's going to have in his life is one of those experiences that reminds you why you are doing this, and we have those experiences quite often," said Joe Kusumoto, the Keystone Adaptive Center program manager. "It's awesome seeing how skiing as a sport can help in overall adjustment to everyday life; I really love being a part of that."

This year marked the largest turnout and fifth consecutive year for the adaptive component of SnoFest, which not only helps injured soldiers ski but also funds their trip as well.

"Going skiing for three to four days and having it paid for is a huge burden lifted," said former Marine Sgt. John Supon. "Some of the guys don't make a lot of money and have to live off disability."

Reliving his first experience, Sergeant Supon explained that when he "first got on a mono-ski, I was terrified," but now he can be found carving his way down the mountain past many able-bodied skiers.

"Getting on a mono-ski is a little bit different, but when you ski past snowboarders and skiers, it's like 'see ya,'" he said. "Definitely a rush. You can't get it anywhere else - definitely not in a wheel chair. It feels like you're surfing on a ski."

Adding to the many benefits for injured servicemembers are the possibilities for those who wish to push themselves further.

"Seeing folks move and excel to the elite-athlete level is one of the most rewarding parts of being able to introduce this sport to folks," Mr. Kusumoto said. "To let people know that not only are you going to be able to ski but there's a good chance you're going to be skiing better than 90 percent of the people on the hill, if this is something that you want to keep doing, is pretty phenomenal."

Being just that type of person, Sergeant Supon is now setting his sights on competing in the Paralympics. He has been sent to two different training camps by the U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Program and he knows these opportunities are because of the efforts of those at the Adaptive Center.

"They're great. They've taught me so much," Sergeant Supon said. "I thought I knew a lot when I came here, but they taught how to be better. It's nice to have a lot of people that care enough to want to teach you."

Advancements in equipment have allowed Sergeant Supon and others to move into the competitive arena, and given the Adaptive Center new ways to get soldiers onto the slopes.

"Prosthetic technology has changed dramatically; snowboarding is definitely becoming a growing sport mostly because of those advances," Mr. Kusumoto explained. "Where some people might have been skiing on one leg and using outriggers, a lot of times now we're seeing people skiing or snowboarding with their prosthetics on.

"In addition, there are quite a few advancements in sit-down equipment, mono skis and byskis. Technology with U.S. Paralympics and racing has really advanced the sit-down equipment where folks are now going 60-70 mph on a downhill course."

Of course, the advancements in technology also bring a higher price tag for the equipment used by the Adaptive Center. As a non-profit organization, they rely on others to continue their mission.

"Vail and Keystone resorts are a big benefactor in helping us be on the mountain and we depend on private donations to keep our non-profit going," Mr. Kusomoto said. "Our equipment is quite expensive, but having a good fleet of equipment really gives people the opportunity to get out here alongside world class instructors."

For the soldiers, it isn't just about getting out on the mountain, it's about reintegrating.

"What I find unique about our program, it's integrated with the largest SnoFest event here at Keystone Resort," Mr. Kusomoto said. "It is the only one I know in the country where recently injured soldiers are able to reintegrate back with active military.

"Some of these guys feel once they're injured they feel like they disappear from the military community that they are so tied in with, and for them to be able to get back out here and be recognized by active military really means a lot to them. That they haven't been forgotten and that people are really invested in seeing that they can do as much as they possibly can is our motivation and what keeps us coming to work every day."

From being extremely active to suffering a debilitating injury, Sergeant Supon took full advantage of programs like the Keystone Adaptive Center's and encourages others to as well.

"If you haven't done it before, contact someone who can help get you into a program like this because once you're in it you never look back," he said.