Ski Spectacular Highlights “Healing Power of Sports”

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By Laura Hochnadel

What a difference a year makes. This is especially true for Ornichleel "Leel" Ulysse, who, one year ago this month, became one of the 1,000-plus people who had one or more limbs amputated as a result of the devastating earthquake that hit Port au Prince, Haiti, in January 2010. The 11-year-old Haitian girl suffered a transtibial amputation after one of the stone block walls of her house collapsed on her and crushed her right foot. This past May, Ulysse traveled to the United States, where she was fit with a custom-designed prosthetic leg and learned to walk again.

Ornichleel "Leel" Ulysse prepares to hit the slopes. Photographs courtesy of The Hartford.

This past December, Ulysse added another skill to her growing repertoire. She was among the more than 800 men, women, and children with physical disabilities who learned how to ski and race at the 23rd annual The Hartford Ski Spectacular, held December 5-12 at Colorado's Beaver Run Resort and the Breckenridge Ski Resort. Hosted by Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA) and sponsored by The Hartford Financial Services Group, organizers bill this event as the nation's largest winter sporting festival of its kind. This is the 17th consecutive year that The Hartford has sponsored the Ski Spectacular.

Participants' skill levels ranged from first-time skiers to youth and adult racers with disabilities who are in training for Alpine, Nordic, and biathlon events, and the Paralympics. The event also served as a forum for interested individuals to learn about the latest advanced ski teaching and race training techniques for people with disabilities.

U.S. Paralympian Sandy Dukat met Ulysse at A Step Ahead Prosthetics & Orthotics, Hicksville, New York, where they are both patients. Dukat, who learned to ski at the Ski Spectacular in 1997 and now works for The Hartford, brought Ulysse's story to the company and helped to facilitate the young girl's attendance at the Ski Spectacular. Ulysse and her mother, Marielle Aupont, exchanged Haiti's tropical 80-plus degree temperatures and 80-plus percent humidity levels for freezing temperatures and two feet of fresh snowfall when they traveled to Breckenridge. The Hartford helped prepare Ulysse for the extreme climate change by providing her with a grant to purchase winter clothing.

Leel gets used to being on skis.

"The Hartford has a long-held belief that sports are an important part of physical rehabilitation following a life-changing illness or injury," Dukat said. "We hope Leel and all the participants at The Hartford Ski Spectacular will experience the healing power of sports, and they'll realize that with the right resources and support, what one's heart, mind, and body can accomplish is limitless."

Not only does the Ski Spectacular play a vital role in helping people like Ulysse incorporate sports into their rehabilitation, it also serves as a similar rehab and training ground for military servicemen and servicewomen who are injured in the line of duty. More than 120 wounded warriors-some of whom were learning to ski or snowboard for the first time since their injuries-participated in the weeklong event.

John Register, associate director, Community and Military Programs, Paralympic division, U.S. Olympic Committee, plays a prominent role in introducing wounded warriors rehabbing at Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC), Fort Sam Houston, Texas, to Paralympic and community-level adaptive sports. At BAMC in particular, he keeps a keen eye out for Paralympic hopefuls. Register wore several hats during the Ski Spectacular, including singing the National Anthem at the opening ceremony, representing the U.S. Paralympics, and observing the DS/USA-run military winter sports program.

"[Some of] these folks coming out of Brooke Army Medical Center are showing promise in a sport, biathlon, or Alpine or Nordic skiing," he said. "So it's really interesting to see them go from this 'what to wow' experience. 'What is this? What's this about? I've got some skill skiing here,' and then they see the Paralympic athletes and they go, 'Wow. I get it. I really have to do some work.'"

Best of all, while Register says that the Ski Spectacular participants "learned that they could push their limits," whatever their individual limits are, "everybody had a great time, they learned a lot..., [and] they had some good snow dumped on them."

DS/USA Executive Director Kirk Bauer, JD, said, "This event, more than any other in the nation, provides a forum for developing relationships, friendships, exchange of information and best practices for individuals and community groups around the nation. These relationships help improve lives and programs and last across miles and over time."