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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Wednesday — February 4, 2004


Marine returns
to athletic life

Ski camp helps disabled
Iraq veteran find hope

Express Staff Writer

A U.S. Marine who was the first to be wounded in the invasion of Iraq is finding new hope in Sun Valley for an active life.

Among the six athletes invited to participate in this year’s Sun Valley Adaptive Sports ski camp is Staff Sgt. Eric Avla, of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines.

The first U.S. serviceman wounded in the Iraq War, Avla lost his right leg above the knee, and has spent months in hospitals.

Leading the group out on the trails is Paralympic Silver Medallist and National Champion Nordic sit-skier Bob Balk, one of the coaches for the Sun Valley Adaptive Sports camp. Express photo by Willy Cook

Sun Valley Adaptive Sports holds a cross-country recruitment camp each year. They invite athletes with disabilities who excel in other sports to Sun Valley to teach them the art of cross-country skiing. For many it’s a way to find a way back into active life again after a tragic accident.

The camp involves daily clinics, time in the gym to learn sport-specific, dry land training techniques, and some time for socializing over the course of nearly a week. The athletes ski on the North Valley Trails, at Galena and on Bald Mountain.

Now living in his hometown of San Antonio, Texas, Avla met Marc Mast, director of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, during the Hartford Ski Spectacular, sponsored in part by Disabled Sports/USA, in Breckenridge, Colo, last December. Mast got Avla up on the slopes with outrigger skis and gave him a few days of instruction. At first, Avla worried about his balance.

"It starts to come back to you, it gets easier and easier. I couldn’t believe it that nine months after my injury … if someone had said while I was in the hospital ‘You’ll be skiing by the end of the year,’ I would have said ‘Get out you’re sick. Not a nice joke.’"

Two recruited athletes, Brent Combs, left, and Brandon Dalein, right head off on their sit-sledges on the North Valley Trails Saturday. Express photo by Willy Cook

And yet, Avla, 33, not merely skied, he excelled. Avla is a former marathoner who ran the Marine Corps marathon four years in a row. His best time was three hours, 10 minutes. That impressed Mast enough to make sure he came to the camp in Sun Valley. Avla has also been swimming three times a week since early December.

"I love the kind of cardio-work you get in a marathon," Avla said. "For sit down skiers you work your upper body. It’s a work out."

Avla admits that after the frustration and depression, the biggest challenge for him was to figure out how to be an athlete still.

Suzanne Elbon picks up some tips on Nordic skiing without poles form coach Willie Stewart. Express photo by Willy Cook



Avla, a 13-year veteran currently in the process of being medically retired, had intended to make the Marine Corps his career. At only 5 feet, 1 inch, he had had to work just to get through Boot Camp. He was a mere 90 pounds when he joined up.

Avla now gives speeches at schools, businesses and conventions and visits soldiers in hospitals who have lost limbs.

"I know what you’re going through," he said he tells them. "After the agony, misery and tears, it’s all about a four letter word—time. It does heal all wounds. When people give you opportunities don’t hold back. You don’t know what you’ve got till you try."

Eric Avla attaches his cross-country skis to a sit-sledge Saturday during the camp. Express photo by Willy Cook

As far as the success of the camp, Mast was positive. His first goal is to create a pool of athletes to compete on a national team. The second goal is to create ambassadors for disabled skiers.

U.S. Disabled Ski Team coaches help train as do members of the team.

The coaching team also included Jon Kreamelmeyer, head coach of the USDST; Joan Scheingraber, former assistant USDST coach and elite able-bodied racer; Muffy Ritz, former able-bodied racer and winner of the American Birkbeiner; and Mast. Current National Sit-Ski Champion Bob Balk coached as well.

"He was very helpful and an excellent role model," Avla said.

Even after other skiers had departed Sun Valley, Avla stayed on to keep skiing.

"It’s about living again. People around me show me that I can still go on."




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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.