Conquering the Mountain

Posted 01 Jun 2010 in News

On practice days, Heath Calhoun leaves his Aspen apartment by eight in the morning. He throws his ski gear into the back of his Nissan truck and drives to the slopes. On the mountain, Calhoun, a handsome thirty-year-old with a shaved head, carries his equipment onto the snow and sits down. Then he takes off his legs.

His prosthetic legs, that is. In 2003 Calhoun, then a staff sergeant stationed in Mosul, Iraq, lost both legs to a rocket-propelled grenade, which also killed one of his fellow soldiers. But Calhoun doesn’t need legs to reach speeds of up to 62 miles per hour on snow. In his races with the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team (a division of the U.S. Ski Team), he uses a monoski, which consists of a seat attached via a shock-absorbing suspension system to a plastic “foot” that clicks into a single standard ski. A pair of ski poles called outriggers—essentially forearm crutches that terminate in miniature ski blades—lend extra balance.

Paralympic Parallel
The Paralympics began in 1948 as an archery tournament between British World War II veterans with spinal injuries. Founded by Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a German doctor interested in the rehabilitative power of sports for people with disabilities, the contest was originally known as the Stoke Mandeville Games (after the British hospital where Sir Ludwig worked). It reached a global audience in Rome in 1960, when the Olympics and the Paralympics took place together for the first time. The Paralympics have grown steadily since, hosting matches in everything from swimming and sled hockey to cycling and judo. Last year in Beijing almost 4,000 Paralympic athletes participated in nineteen summer sports (the winter games, with just five, are a smaller affair). The International Paralympic Committee, which is made up of several national and sports groups and organizes the Paralympics, celebrated its twentieth anniversary in 2009.

The 2010 Paralympic Games run March 12-21 in Vancouver.

The racing times Calhoun clocks during the current season will determine whether he earns a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team and goes to Vancouver for the Paralympic Winter Games in March 2010. The Paralympics, which have shared venues with the Olympic Games since 1988, showcase serious athletes with disabilities ranging from amputation to visual impairment, and from spinal cord injury to traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy or stroke. Like many Paralympic hopefuls who set aside months to train, Calhoun hopes to become one of the roughly 650 elite athletes to compete in Vancouver in 2010. As of October he was ranked third nationally in Super G (a speed event) for sitting males.

A score-conversion system allows athletes with varying levels of disability—different degrees of visual impairment, for example—to compete against one another, and there are many kinds of adaptive equipment approved by the International Paralympic Committee. Judo mats for blind competitors, for instance, feature textured boundary lines, and athletes with spinal injuries throw shot put and discus from a stationary chair. Jeff Fabry, a three-time gold medalist in archery with a right-arm amputation, shoots by releasing the bowstring with his mouth, using a piece of leather called a mouth tab. One of Calhoun’s teammates, Danelle Umstead, is a visually impaired skier whose husband, Rob, serves as her guide. After his amputation, Calhoun found that he could ski better than he could walk. He tried several sports during the nine months he spent recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, from skiing to riding an arm-powered bike called a handcycle. Despite his athletic progress, he found walking on prosthetics difficult and continued to use a wheelchair. “The sockets, the part that connects the prosthetic limb to you, were just not comfortable,” recalls Calhoun. “They never really felt like a part of me.”

And so he did everything but walk—he skied, played wheelchair basketball and biked. From May to July 2005 he handcycled from Los Angeles to Montauk, New York, for the second annual Soldier Ride. The event is a fund-raiser for the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that helps severely injured veterans and their families with everything from benefits counseling to career training. Calhoun was joined on bicycles by Iraq veteran Ryan Kelly, who uses a prosthetic leg, and Chris Carney, an able-bodied bartender from Long Island. They covered 40 miles a day when terrain was rough, and up to 118 on flat land with a good tailwind. They rode on back roads, state roads, and highways—except in Illinois, where their caravan got pulled over by a state trooper. “He made us back up backwards down an on-ramp, with bicycles and cars and U-Hauls and RVs,” drawls Calhoun, who grew up in Virginia. “We could have just exited a mile up, but he was not into that.”

By 2006, Calhoun was skiing with a national group called Disabled Sports USA, and he began wondering, he says, “Where can I take this? What’s the upper echelon?” One of the organizers entered him in a race in New Hampshire, and, around the same time, the disabled-skiing organization Challenge Aspen began assembling a wounded-veteran race team. The director invited Calhoun to join, and he began spending race season in Aspen.

This season is Calhoun’s fourth. He practices with Challenge Aspen five days a week on snow, from about 9 a.m. to noon, and goes to the gym three to five times a week. Early in the season they work on technical drills, but when the races begin they focus on speed. “I like to be compact when I’m skiing, so that I’m not sprawled all over the mountain, arms flailing,” Calhoun says. “Being compact allows me to get around the gates easier—it’s something I work on a lot.” He focused on this during a recent training camp in Austria before returning home to Clarksville, Tennessee, for a visit with his wife, Tiffany, and their three children, and then heading to Colorado.

When Calhoun signed up for Challenge Aspen in 2006, he was still going about his daily life in a wheelchair. Handcycling 4,000 miles was no problem, but walking more than ten steps never got easier. At an Amputee Coalition of America conference in Minneapolis that summer, he saw something he’d given up on for himself: a young man running around on two prosthetic legs. When he met the man, Cameron Clapp, “he did whatever I asked—step up a curb, step down a curb, bend over and pick something up,” recalls Calhoun. “I was just amazed.” That night, Clapp lent Calhoun his foreshortened prosthetics, or “stubbies,” which are like rectangular plastic feet that attach directly into leg sockets. “I was up and walking and free in a matter of ten minutes,” says Calhoun. He fired his old prosthetist, used the stubbies to build stability, and after a month was fitted with new prosthetics. The knees are computerized, with processors inside that update fifty times a second and adjust with hydraulic pressure.

Back on the snow this winter, Calhoun and his team will scout the courses and plan their strategies before each race. “We try to memorize the course—where we can take risks, where you have to set up early, where you can run a little straighter,” he says. If Calhoun’s overall scores for the season place him among the nation’s highest-ranked skiers (top three or five, depending on the event), he’ll have his spot on the Paralympic team, which will be announced February 21. “It’s a challenge to try to prepare,” adds Calhoun. “I just try to forget about that and enjoy what I’m doing on race day. I wouldn’t be doing it if it wasn’t fun.” Next year he may go out for the X Games, but for now, he says, “I’m trying to get to the Paralympics and trying to win a medal, and we’ll take it from there.”

Lamar Clarkson is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in ARTnews, Architectural Record, and Salon.

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