Friday, February 10, 2006

Disabled soldiers pursue skiing dreams

Wood River Ability Program inspires veterans

Express Staff Writer

U.S. Paralympic Nordic skier Bob Balk, at right, teaches Army Staff Sgt. Dan Regan, at far left, and Army Spc. Andy Soule to cross-country ski on Thursday during the Wood River Ability Program's adaptive ski camp. Sun Valley Nordic Center instructor Rebecca Rusch offers pointers to Marine Sgt. Dan Gilyeat, who is in town to pursue his skiing dreams. Photo by David N. Seelig

Less than a month after losing his left leg in duty, Marine Sgt. Dan Gilyeat was walking. A single-leg amputee, Gilyeat applied the same tenacious spirit on Thursday, Feb. 9, during a cross-country ski training session with the Wood River Ability Program.

"I take every opportunity that pushes me to the Olympics," said Gilyeat, of Kansas City.

Gilyeat and three fellow soldiers are learning to cross-country ski this week with help from the Wood River Ability Program, the U.S. Disabled Cross-Country Ski Team and Operation Comfort.

"The whole idea is to rejuvenate their lives and help them create a positive self-image," said Marc Mast, Wood River Ability Program director.

The Wood River Ability Program, a nonprofit organization formed to promote physical and mental health for disabled people through sports and recreation, hosts the annual Cross-Country Ski Development Camp.

"This lets them know there is life after their injury and they just have to adapt," Mast said.

The ultimate goal is to develop elite cross-country skiers to compete for prestigious spots as members of the U.S. Disabled Cross-Country Ski Team.

"This gets them to see the potential ... The purpose of this trip is to see if they are interested in trying out for the Paralympic team," said Fred Jesse, a physical therapist with the Brook Army Medical Center, on Fort Sam Houston in Texas.

Selected for their athletic abilities from the Brook Army Medical Center, the men came to the valley for a three-day introduction to cross-country skiing. The group arrived at the Sun Valley Nordic Center Thursday morning for its first training session with Sun Valley Nordic Center instructor Rebecca Rusch and 2006 U.S. Paralympic Nordic skier Bob Balk, of Long Beach, Calif. Today, Feb. 10, Paralympic Nordic skiers Chris Klebl and Greg Mallory will work with the soldiers on the North Valley Trails, north of Ketchum.

The athletes began training at the Sun Valley Nordic Center by gearing up with appropriate equipment. As Gilyeat slipped into his boots, Rusch asked if he wanted to try a "sit-ski" device. His left leg is amputated above the left knee.

"No, I want to try the whole deal," Gilyeat said.

Despite the lost leg, his tenacious spirit remains intact. He completed his rehabilitation in three months, rather than the typical seven-month to one-year recovery period. During the process, the sergeant incorporated his own training elements such as climbing stairs. He has since tried fencing, hockey and alpine skiing, while continuing to practice martial arts. "Riding horses, jumping in mosh pits, you name it, I do it," Gilyeat said.

On Thursday, he jumped into the cross-country ski tracks, gliding with one leg in front of the other with fellow soldier Army Sgt. Chang Wong. Wong, a double below-the-knee amputee, moved with concentrated ease, easily mistaken for an able-bodied beginner skier.

"It is a little tricky trying to get my balance, but it will be a good experience," Wong said.

While Wong remained in the tracks, Gilyeat found his prosthetic leg wasn't practical for the striding technique. He explained that the leg maintains a battery charge that bends the knee joint, practical for walking, but not Nordic skiing.

He opted to join Army Spc. Andy Soule, a double-leg amputee, and Army Staff Sgt. Dan Regan, a single-leg amputee, on sit-skis. The sit-ski apparatus, with skis mounted on the bottom, allows disabled skiers to ski while seated. The group learned how to use ski poles efficiently to glide across the snow. Within the first minutes, the group was leaving onlookers in awe.

"We hear about guys," Mast said. "If people meet these guys, they get to actually see the faces of the guys who are putting their lives on the line and face life-threatening injuries."

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