Heroes in Sisters

Disabled war veterans get the opportunity to ski and snowboard at Hoodoo for a day

Katie Brauns / The Bulletin /

Published Feb 8, 2009 at 04:00AM

HOODOO — It’s challenging enough for the able-bodied to ski and snowboard. For those forced to use primarily their arms to operate the equipment, snowriding is one heck of a feat.

And for some at Hoodoo Mountain Resort on Saturday, just joining the festivities took a mustering of will.

“On the way here it was still dark,” explained Vietnam veteran Thomas Collopy, who was at Hoodoo taking part in an event billed as Heroes in Sisters. “When you have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) you think of things like convoys in the dark — when you get ambushed. … You get flashbacks. Stuff like this (Heroes in Sisters) takes your mind off of it.”

Collopy, 62, of Beaverton, lost his left leg during battle in Vietnam in the 1970s. He was one of 10 veterans to join the Heroes in Sisters event. Hosted by Oregon Adaptive Sports, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA, Saturday’s event gave Oregon disabled war veterans the opportunity to ski or snowboard for a day. The participants also received breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a night’s stay at FivePine Lodge in nearby Sisters.

“This is just our humble way of saying thank you to vets for their sacrifices to America,” said Oregon Adaptive Sports vice president Kevin McCormack as he rode the chairlift in a mono-ski designed for disabled skiers on Saturday. “It’s a taste — especially for the newer vets coming out of Iraq — of what they are still capable of.”

“After seeing all this stuff on the news and folks coming back (from Iraq), I was just trying to figure out what we could do,” noted Amber Blanchard, a volunteer with Oregon Adaptive Sports who came up with the idea for Heroes in Sisters. “I think everybody has to do something. You know, you might not be able to give money. You might not be able to give a ton of your time. But we all have a gift that we can give. This is what I could give. This was our way to say thank you.”

Blanchard is also the therapeutic rec coordinator for the Bend Metro Park and Recreation District, working with the special-needs population in recreational programs in Bend.

Veterans from four wars braved the sun-drenched slopes at Hoodoo on Saturday, most of them skiing for the first or second time ever. The modified skiing and snowboarding equipment used for the Heroes event included bi-skis, mono-skis, three-tracks and prosthetics. Bi-skis have two skis fixed below a bucket seat. Mono-skis are similar to bi-skis, but with only one ski on the bottom. The three-track, or stand-up riggers, are generally used for one-legged amputees and are long poles with small skis on the ends and then a regular ski and boot setup. Prosthetics and ski/snowboard equipment are actually attached to one another for more stability for amputees.

“We have a broad range of disabilities,” explained McCormack, 41, and father of two. “Some people just have minor visual impairments, to paraplegia (motor and sensory paralysis of the entire lower half of the body), to amputees, and we didn’t want to exclude those who had wounds in their minds.”

Speeding down the slushy hill, Bend’s McCormack made mono-skiing look simple. He carved perfect “S” shapes in the snow, leaning from side to side with scaled down skis on the ends of his poles. McCormack has always been passionate about alpine skiing. After a ski accident five years ago, which left him paralyzed from the waist down, he decided not to let the sport go. Since then he has put the same enthusiasm into mono-skiing.

“When you are a skier your whole life — life goes on,” said McCormack of his decision to start mono-skiing just a year after his accident. “The things that you are passionate about and you enjoy doing, you still have to do — you just have to do it differently.”

McCormack has taken over the Heroes in Sisters event, now in its second year. Through it, he hopes to share and show disabled veterans the joy of skiing.

According to McCormack, it costs about $5,000 to offer the Heroes event to 10 skiers. With a continued increase in sponsorship (OAS received four times as much sponsorship funding this year compared with 2008), Oregon Adaptive Sports will provide the free skiing day for even more disabled vets in years to come, McCormack said.

As many of the participants proved, and volunteers reiterated, Saturday’s Heroes event was about showing vets what they can do, as opposed to what they can’t do.

“I’m not going to say I didn’t think I would be able to do it, but I had my doubts,” said Iraq war veteran Kevin Pannell, 30, of Portland. “But we just keep plugging away at it.”

Both of Pannell’s legs have been amputated, his left leg above the knee, his right leg below the knee. He explained that he lost his limbs when he was hit by two hand grenades in 2004. Using prosthetics with a snowboard, he ripped down the Blue Valley and Showoff runs at Hoodoo.

Despite his novice status, Pannell was cruising smooth.

“He’s been an inspiration to all of us,” said Devin Kelly, a co-worker of Pannell’s with Portland-based Oregon Active, an outdoor and recreational adventure company for at-risk teens and disabled persons.

Those who have not gone to battle will never know what it is like to be in the line of duty. And those who have not lost a limb or their hearing during combat will not know what it is like to adapt to life as usual.

For the Oregon heroes who skied at Hoodoo on Saturday, they had a taste of normalcy, a taste of the notion that anything is possible.

“I’m totally disabled, so it makes me feel a little normal,” said veteran Mike Ward, 64, of Bend, who had last skied in the 1960s.

“The fact that they have the courage to even try,” notes McCormack. “That exceeds our expectations.”