Hitting the slopes. Literally.

I spent much of this past weekend feeling like I’d been in a high-speed wreck. Sore doesn’t begin to describe it. Muscles I didn’t even know I had, ached. And there was bruising on parts of my body which I had previously considered well-cushioned.

I have no regrets about what put me in that kind of shape, though. You see, last Thursday I was privileged enough to spend the day at Greek Peak in the company of some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. They were the participants and volunteers involved with Winter Challenge, a non-profit program which helps adults with physical disabilities learn to ski or snowboard.

It had been years since I’d been skiing and frankly, I was never any good at it. But the fear of personal injury didn’t deter me from taking on the assignment. As soon as Jeff told me the program’s co-founder, Robyn King, had asked if one of The Evening Sun’s intrepid reporters would be interested in covering the event, I jumped at it.

I was already familiar with Winter Challenge to a certain extent thanks to Doreen Rowe, a classmate of mine from Leadership Chenango. She had talked often about her work as an adaptive ski coach and this program in particular. It’s something she’s very passionate about.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to find out she would be my guide during my day at Greek Peak. No matter what they had in store for me, I knew I was in capable hands.

I caught up with the Winter Challenge crew at their hotel on Thursday morning. It was the final day of the week-long program, and the participants and volunteers had already formed a close-knit group. They were enjoying their last breakfast together, chatting easily, when I arrived.

I grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down with Robyn at the table she was sharing with Meagan, one of the program’s junior volunteers. Robyn was eager to introduce me to the other volunteers, instructors and, of course, the participants.

“They all have a story,” she told me, as I struggled to keep everyone’s names straight.

One of the first people I met was Scott Dibble from Windsor, who has been “in the chair” 15 years due to a T-5 spinal cord injury.

It was Scott’s first Winter Challenge, but he had some prior experience. He started mono-skiing at Greek last winter through the Greek Peak Adaptive Snowsports Center’s Sunday program.

“I really wish I got into this a lot earlier,” he told me.

Scott was being ribbed by his new friends for a spectacular spill he’d taken the day before. One which led to him taking a “ride of shame” in the what One Legged John Solowiej (who co-founded the program with Robyn) likes to call “the meat wagon.” Thankfully, the only injury was to his ski – which everyone signed for posterity.

Smiling next to Scott as he recounted his tale was Justin Meaders, a Texan who had purportedly never seen a snow plow or a snow blower before he arrived in Central New York on Sunday. Needless to say, he’d never been skiing before the week started. By Thursday, however, he was speeding down black diamond runs with the best of them. (At the banquet later that evening, I learned he fell only once that day. Show off.)

I had the chance to chat with Justin more over lunch. Not only is he a competitive handcylist and a triathlete, but he’s also learning to fly. I guess it’s no wonder he took to mono-skiing so quickly. That competitive spirit seems to be in his blood. And it wasn’t tempered by the motorcycle racing accident which put him in a chair.

I just had time to finish my coffee before we were heading to Greek. The drive gave me plenty of time to start stressing about strapping on skis for the first time in far too many years. It didn’t help that my ES colleagues were back in the newsroom taking bets on just how severely I’d manage to injure myself. (Way to have faith, guys.)

Gayle and Al Kryger, who operate Greek Peak, are staunch supporters of the adaptive program. They comped both my equipment rental and lift ticket for the day. And they even gave me a personal tour of the new Hope Lake Lodge. Wow, is that place impressive!

Once Doreen helped me get fitted for the appropriate gear, I had some time to kibbitz with Aaron Holm. Aaron and I talked at length about the accident which cost him both his legs and the Wiggle Your Toes Foundation, the organization he founded to help other amputees. (Aaron featured prominently in my article on Winter Challenge, which appeared in yesterday’s edition of The Evening Sun.)

Aaron was one of three participants to trek from Minneapolis for the program, all of whom were sponsored by Wiggle Your Toes. The others were Matt Wise (who you also met in the aforementioned article) and Rob Rickenberg, both of whom are unilateral amputees.

When I asked Aaron how he ended up getting involved with Winter Challenge, he gestured across the room at Rob, who was one of the rare participants to go through the program twice. The first time was in 2006, just six months after he lost his leg. In fact, his first conversation with One Legged John about Winter Challenge took place while he was still laying in a hospital bed recovering from the accident.

Before long it was time to hit the slopes. I watched with interest as the participants got geared up, particularly those who were being strapped into mono-skis.

Little did I know that after lunch I’d be getting strapped into one of those myself. And that wasn’t the only thing Doreen and Robyn had in store for me! I had a personal lesson in tri-tracking later in the afternoon.

Let me tell you, both are incredibly challenging – requiring more balance, upper body strength and tenacity than you could imagine. Even after a few minutes in the mono-ski (with Doreen holding on and two other instructors – Ken and Joel standing by), I had a whole new level of respect for the participants who went from the bunny slope to the black diamond runs in just a couple of days. As for the tri-tracking, well, I give those guys credit, too. And I thought regular skiing was challenging!

My exploits on the slopes gave the participants something to chide me about back at the adaptive ski center and at the banquet that night. (For some reason, Matt and Aaron really enjoyed the pictures of the various faceplants I took throughout the day – which Doreen was more than happy to capture for me. Don’t worry guys, Jeff has promised to post them all on the ES facebook page.)

At the banquet, I also got the chance to chat with Conell Furbeck, a Wounded Warrior from the Syracuse area, whose right arm is paralyzed from a spinal cord injury.

Robyn was right, everyone involved with the program has a story. And I feel privileged to have been given the opportunity to hear a few of them.

It was a cush gig, I’m not going to lie. And my co-workers were none too pleased that I landed such a plumb assignment. This was evidenced by the enormous glee they derived from tormenting me Friday when I turned up for work more than a little the worse for wear. Cretins.

I can forgive them, I guess. I’d probably be jealous, too, if the situation was reversed.

Besides, their teasing is a small price to pay for such an amazing experience. A million thanks to Robyn King, John Solowiej, Doreen Rowe and all of the participants and volunteers associated with Winter Challenge 2011. Each and every one of you is an inspiration. And Doreen, you are nothing short of an angel. Thank you for your unending patience with me, and your willingness to answer all of my many questions. God bless.

Follow me on Twitter ... @evesunmelissa.

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