Celebrating 35 years of building confidence, camaraderie and courage on the Amputee Ski Trip
One crisp, clear Colorado morning in 1985, young Daniel Massey was enjoying a ski run on the freshly powdered slopes of Winter Park, Colo. Conquering moguls on only his second day of learning to ski, he was not your average skier. Performing this feat as a quad-amputee, born with no arms or legs, Daniel was clearly not average at all.
In the early ’80s, Herring attended an orthopedic conference where he became inspired after seeing a presentation about the benefits of skiing for the physically challenged. J. C. Montgomery, Jr., the hospital’s president at that time and now executive chairman of the TSRHC Foundation, rallied donors, the community and corporate sponsors to help make the trip a reality. This year, the weeklong event marked a milestone 35th anniversary, and there has been much cause for celebration.
“I’m really celebrating what this trip has meant to the kids,” Herring says. “The kids come back and tell me, even as 40-year-olds, that it was a turning point in their life.”
These amputee patients are faced with peaks and valleys every day, but finding the courage to take on the Rocky Mountains can be transformative. “A child may be the only one in their school with a disability,” Herring explains. “Some have never come out in the open with their prosthesis, flown on a plane or spent a night away from home. So it’s a huge step for them.”
But it’s not a step they take alone. They are accompanied by nurses, orthopedists and prosthetists, who act as chaperones, coordinators and a support unit for the young skiers. The travel coordination, meal planning and activity arrangements are a team effort.
The highly recognized staff at the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) is also a key part of that team. They carefully evaluate each skier and fit them with adaptive gear best suited to their level of physical ability and interest, from snowboards to ski bikes. Each patient is then paired with an instructor who shows them the best techniques to experience the thrill and freedom of speeding down the mountain.
“They have the same attitude we do,” Herring says of the NSCD staff. “We want to enable these kids to do anything they could possibly do and make it fun for them.”
“It’s not an easy event to pull off, but it’s certainly worth the effort,” explains TSRHC’s Director of Prosthetics Don Cummings, who has double, below-the-knee-amputations and has been on the trip 25 times.
Some might consider such a mission truly impossible, but clearly this one has been a success.
“It’s amazing how many lives have been touched through this incredible experience — including mine,” says Cummings, who skied for the first time on his inaugural trip in 1988. “These kids have taught me to accept my disability and myself.”
Herring points out that another benefit of the trip is learning the challenges these patients face in daily life.
“Watching them navigate ice, climb up snowy stairs and carry their luggage, you see what they are dealing with outside of a clinic setting,” he explains. “We can take that knowledge and find ways to help them function better out in the world. This trip really represents our philosophy of treating the whole child.”
The many benefits this trip provides are made possible by organizations like American Airlines, which provides air transportation through its “Kids in Need” program, the Stephen M. Seay Foundation and Dallas retailer Saint Bernard. The trip also relies on help from individuals like longtime TSRHC friend and volunteer Bob Ayers, who has served as a ski trip chaperone for many years and is now a hospital trustee.
Herring believes the biggest benefit of the trip is the unique and life-changing camaraderie created between kids who share the same challenges. Teens find a safe place to shed their inhibitions, their worries and sometimes even their legs.
“Some of these kids have never hopped around in front of other people without their prosthetic leg on and all of a sudden, they feel free to do that because this is just who they are,” Herring explains. “This trip is much more than skiing. It’s an avenue for that self-acceptance to happen.”
It’s been 31 years since Daniel Massey, with his quad-amputation, first strapped on his ski boots and helped the two-armed person beside him do the same. He says that the ski trip put him with amputee teenagers who were not just coping but excelling.
“On my first trip, I was having a lot of concerns about what high school would be like. I didn’t know if I could drive a car, if girls would find me attractive or if my friends would leave me behind,” Massey reflects. “I left the mountain knowing that I could do anything I wanted in life.”
Since then, Massey has graduated from college, is enjoying a successful marketing career with one of the largest computer companies in the country and is a happily married father of twin boys.
It appears that from the top of that mountain he could see — his loftiest goals were within reach.
**This article was featured as the cover story in our Rite Up Magazine. View more of the magazine in our e-mag version.