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High Fives All Around to Adaptive Veterans

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By DAN HIKEL  |  Truckee

High five to adaptive veterans from Dallas and Reno for getting on snow this past week.

I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer through the High Fives Foundation’s Military to the Mountains, a program that gives adaptive veterans access to the slopes.

M2M is a program that demonstrates a deep sense of appreciation for the men and women who serve our country in the military — specifically those veterans who have suffered life-altering injuries in the name of loyalty to America.

It all starts in Dallas where adaptive veterans train in an intense 9-week program at the Adaptive Training Foundation. They are put through a rigorous and rewarding conditioning program specifically designed for lower leg and/or arm amputees to build the necessary strength and conditioning needed to become self-reliant sit skiers or upright snowboarders and skiers.

As the athletes arrived on the hill Tuesday, after receiving equipment and gear from generous sponsors on Monday, they were ready to hit the slopes at Alpine Meadows. The weather was perfect spring conditions, and with a little trepidation these highly trained and disciplined individuals were ready to approach the uncertainty of snow for the first time.

You could see the determination on their faces as they approached this new activity with unbridled enthusiasm. Many literally hit the slopes often and hard, yet kept picking themselves up to get that experience of freedom provided by skiing.

After a solid first day, the group reconvened for dinner in Squaw to discuss the experiences and by late afternoon the next day you could see the confidence in the athletes’ body language.

The following day brought rain, snow, and very high winds to Truckee/Tahoe and, much to the dismay of the group, both Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows mountain operations were closed for the day.

High Fives Foundation founder Roy Tuscany made the most unbelievable thing happen and called an audible. A phone call was placed and a “yes” decision was made to allow thee group to experience the Woodward Tahoe training center.

The team loaded the vans and headed for Donner Summit in a blizzard.

Upon arrival, the athletes signed the necessary release documents, got some basic instruction and protective gear, and were then allowed to roll around with wheelchairs in the skate park area and pump track, while others were jumping and performing rolls and flips in the trampoline area.

As activity progressed and the athletes became more comfortable with the facility at Woodward, one of the veterans from Reno, Trey Humphrey, an accomplished mono-skier, decided he wanted to try to sit ski off one of the jump ramps into the foam pit.

After very little discussion, an approval was given and Humphrey made his way to the top of the lower ramp.

Suddenly, a change in the atmosphere was evident as many of the local young Woodward athletes took notice and stopped performing their own activities and made their way around the ramp area. In very brief time Humphrey was descending down the ramp to the kicker above the pit, launched himself into the air, and performed a flawless full back layout. The place erupted in cheers and whistles of accolades for a, nowadays, seemingly common technique, yet never previously known to be executed on a roller sit ski set up.

In predictable fashion, many of the other veterans in wheelchairs now wanted to jump off the ramp into the pits. Woodward Tahoe ramps do not have wheelchair access, so volunteers started to pull the veterans up the stairs to the top of the ramp.

Again, the place erupted in cheers as veterans one by one rolled down the ramp either assisted by a talented volunteer on roller skis or unassisted and hucked themselves into the foam pits. Even 57-year-old veteran Jim Kempner launched the ramp into the foam pit.

The following two days brought fresh snow to the area and allowed for excellent conditions. And although high winds were blowing on Friday, Alpine Meadows was able to open Subway, Meadow, and Hot Wheels chairs to the delight of the group.

It was these two days for many, after much frustration of trying something new, that I witnessed something amazing start to unfold. As the notion it would be over in a blink of an eye for these athletes became apparent, a stronger determination came over the group and progress began at an incredible pace.

Some of the veterans who had snow experience from last year’s trip made huge gains in their ability to shred the slopes with controlled abandon. I witnessed one athlete, Lawrence Green, in his sit ski punch it down the lower, but somewhat steep face of Weasel run with his instructor on skis in a full tuck not even able to keep pace.

Other athletes such as Will Hoyum, retired United States Marine Corps. Sgt., — who was tethered in his sit ski last year, did the necessary extra training this year and utilized visualization tools — quickly found himself skiing untethered for the first time with a huge, unremovable smile on his face.

Two veteran women were with the group this year and struggled most of the week until Friday and Saturday. Tina Lemus, USMC, retired, from Sparks, is a vision impaired athlete who was becoming increasingly frustrated her first time on skis. Lemus finally had her breakthrough on Friday afternoon. Beth Wiggins, USMC, retired, from Alabama, is a double amputee and mother, who had the look of deep disappointment on her face at the end of the previous days had her breakthrough on Saturday and was truly glowing with accomplishment as a first time sit skier.

Other veterans, Chris Wolff, Ryan Zimmerer, Brian Aft, Shay Hampton, Phil Quintana, Kenny Kalish, Eric Fehr, Emmett Pryor, Patrick Myers, Trevor Kennison, Blake Watson, Dennis Mankel, Tyler Rollins, Will Winters, Kevin Trimble, Sergio Gonzalez, and Travis Livingston all brought an indomitable attitude of “get it done” and showed us all that human spirit can overcome any obstacle presented in life. Especially if there are other kind and caring people out there who want to help and support their goals.

So thank you to these incredible people, these veterans, who sacrificed so much to come to North Tahoe and share their stories of unimaginable adversity and amazing comeback. You have overcome the biggest odds to get on the slopes and stomp the crap out of it like you owned it!

~ Dan Hikel is a full-time Truckee resident and is extremely honored and inspired every day to have met the many military veteran athletes through volunteering with the M2M program the past two years.

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May 10, 2018