To borrow from late basketball coaching legend John Wooden, the mountain doesn’t build character, it reveals it.
Emotions were high at the 36th annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic, as 130 participants ascended to Snowmass Village, Colorado, to take part in adaptive skiing, sled hockey, curling, snowboarding, snowmobiling and fly fishing. The event, co-presented by DAV and the Department of Veterans Affairs, elevated disabled veteran athletes from around the country, who rose to overcome new challenges or sharpen their Alpine skills.
“We have come from all across the nation to gather here for a chance to test our mettle,” National Commander Andrew Marshall said while kicking off the clinic. “During the week, this 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 traveled to Colorado for the clinic.
“I can’t thank the VA, our gracious co-presenters, enough,” said National Voluntary Services Director John Kleindienst. “That we 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 his fellow veterans while polishing his already-impressive skiing proficiency.
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 Iraq War, he refused to sit out. He was the first amputee to deploy to Iraq, where he was injured a second time. While rendering aid to Iraqi civilians during a firefight, a wall came crashing down around him, crushing McLeroy and opening his stomach.
“My intestines just started coming through,” he said. “So I wiggled them back in, bandaged myself up, and went back to work for another month because I didn’t want to leave my guys.”
But his medical issues did not stop there.
After experiencing lingering back pain for eight years following the incident, he learned his spinal cord had stiffened and become thick in his lower back, resulting in the need for a wheelchair. After nearly two years in the hospital, he left military service.
It was while receiving care at the San Diego VA Medical Center that he was introduced to the National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic.
“I said, ‘I’m up for anything,’” he recalled.
For his motivation and fearlessness, McLeroy received the 2022 DAV Freedom Award, given to the participant most embodying the spirit of the Winter Sports Clinic.
For many veterans, the clinic is a chance to push themselves. Participants included veterans who require wheelchairs, amputees, those with visual impairments and those with traumatic brain injuries. Skiers who are blind were equipped with helmet communications devices to talk with guides.
For Army veteran Nate Turner, a first-time participant from Texas, the week was 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 folks who put this together, the people who are volunteering—it’s very heartwarming and I’m very appreciative.”
The clinic saw several returning veterans eager to test their tenacity on the slopes. For many, the clinic was their first chance to “shred the powder” since 2019. Larry Ruiz, a returning Marine Corps veteran from Fresno, California, jumped right back in where he left off. He said his first time at the event was life-changing.
“I was told I’d never walk, jump or do any of the things I normally do,” said Ruiz. “I came here and I’m able to ski standing up. I had to smile up and down the hill.”
At the event’s closing ceremony, VA Secretary Denis McDonough commended the clinic’s participants for their inspiration to their fellow citizens.
“When veteran athletes engage in adaptive sports, you send a powerful message to spectators, sponsors, therapists, doctors and other veterans,” said McDonough. “That message is about the perseverance of veterans, the endurance of the human spirit and the strength of Americans—and therefore all of America.”