Disabled veterans reach new heights at the Winter Sports Clinic

Disabled veterans participate in adaptive skiing, blind skiing and sledge hockey. The annual event features veterans from across the country who compete in several adaptive winter sports.

In the words of late basketball coach John Wooden, the mountain doesn’t build character, it reveals it.

Emotions ran high at the 36th Annual National Snow Clinic for Veterans with Disabilities, as 130 participants rode to Snowmass Village, Colorado to partake in adaptive skiing, sledge hockey, curling, snowboarding, snowmobiling and fly fishing. The event, co-presented by DAV and the Department of Veterans Affairs, elevated disabled veteran athletes from across the country, who rose up to overcome new challenges or hone their alpine skills.

“We have come from all over the country to gather here to test our mettle,” National Commander Andrew Marshall said at the launch of the clinic. “Over the week, that bond will grow as you enjoy and maybe even struggle with the challenges this event presents.”

It was the first time since 2019, due to COVID-19 restrictions, that veterans had traveled to Colorado for the clinic.

“I can’t thank the AV enough, our kind co-presenters,” said National Volunteer Services Director John Kleindienst. “The fact that we have had such a successful clinic after a two-year hiatus is a testament to everyone who helped make this event happen, including our ski instructors and volunteers.”

For disabled veteran William “Bud” McLeroy, the event was a chance to connect with fellow veterans while honing his already impressive skiing skills.

Army and Marine Corps veteran William “Bud” McLeroy is the event’s 2022 Freedom Award recipient. The honor is given to the veteran who best embodies the spirit of the event.

McLeroy has been to every winter sports clinic since 2012. A Purple Heart recipient, he was injured in 2004 near Sadr City, Baghdad. However, his first life-changing injury came from a car accident, which left McLeroy without a right leg.

But when his army reserve unit was activated for the war in Iraq, he refused to sit down. He was the first amputee to be deployed to Iraq, where he was injured a second time. While delivering aid to Iraqi civilians in a firefight, a wall collapsed around him, crushing McLeroy and splitting his stomach.

“My intestines just started coming out,” he said. “So I put them back on, bandaged up and went back to work for another month because I didn’t want to leave my guys.”

But his medical problems didn’t stop there.

After experiencing persistent back pain for eight years after the incident, he learned that his spinal cord had stiffened and thickened in his lower back, requiring a wheelchair. After nearly two years in the hospital, he left military service.

It was while receiving treatment at the San Diego VA Medical Center that he was introduced to the National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic.

“I said, ‘I’m ready for anything,'” he recalled.

For his drive and fearlessness, McLeroy received the 2022 DAV Freedom Award, given to the participant who most embodies the spirit of the Winter Sports Clinic.

For many veterans, the clinic is a chance to excel. Attendees included veterans who need a wheelchair, amputees, people with visual impairments and people with traumatic brain injuries. Blind skiers were equipped with communication headsets to communicate with the guides.

For Army veteran Nate Turner, a first-time attendee from Texas, the week was all about thanking everyone who made this year’s clinic possible.

“It’s kind of hard to put into words,” he said. “The gratitude I have for the people who put this together, the people who volunteer, it’s very heartwarming and I’m very grateful.”

The clinic saw several returning veterans eager to test their toughness on the slopes. For many, the clinic was their first chance to “shred the powder” since 2019. Larry Ruiz, a Marine Corps veteran from Fresno, Calif., picked up where he left off. He said his first appearance at the event was life-changing.

Marine Corps veteran Larry Ruiz is pictured with an adaptable ski bike. He is a returning winter sports clinic veteran and said the event was life-changing.

“I was told that I would never walk, jump or do anything that I normally do,” Ruiz said. “I came here and I’m able to ski standing up. I had to smile up and down the hill.

During the event’s closing ceremony, VA Secretary Denis McDonough congratulated the clinic attendees for inspiring their fellow citizens.

“When veteran athletes engage in adaptive sports, you send a powerful message to spectators, sponsors, therapists, doctors and other veterans,” McDonough said. “This message is about the perseverance of veterans, the endurance of the human spirit, and the strength of Americans – and therefore of all of America.”

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