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Sun Valley Becomes Hub For Healing Vets Through Sports

KETCHUM, Idaho - A ceremony in Sochi, Russia a few days ago started the one year countdown to the 2014 Winter Games. Here in the Northwest, the Sun Valley, Idaho ski team has set a goal to get at least six of its skiers or snowboarders on Team USA in Sochi.

The Paralympic Games for physically disabled athletes follow right after the Olympics. That U.S. team will also likely have lots of Northwest ties. Sun Valley is developing a reputation for uncovering exceptional paraplegic and amputee athletes through programs geared toward injured veterans.

Retirees Tom and Mari Lowe ski recreationally, but I found them in the large crowd of spectators drawn to a cross-country sprint racing exhibition held recently in the resort town of Ketchum, Idaho. Some of the races featured members of the U.S. Paralympic National Team.

Spectators marvel at a speedy, one-armed ex-Marine. A nearly blind former Navy linguist races behind a sighted guide, and numerous amputee and paraplegic veterans power around the course just on arm strength and abs.

"Look at their upper bodies. It's amazing what these people can do," Lowe says. "It's incredible."

It was a sight like this more than a decade ago that Sean Halsted says jump-started his rebound from a disabling injury. Halsted is a former Air Force combat controller now living in Rathdrum, Idaho. During an Air Force training exercise, he fell from a helicopter and was paralyzed him from the waist down.

"There were like two years were I wasn't doing anything," Halsted says. "I couldn't figure out how to make it work. I couldn't figure out where to go. I felt guilty about sitting on my butt and I'm still getting money."

That money being his disability pension. Then Halsted says a Veterans Administration physical therapist in Seattle had an idea for him: attend a winter sports clinic for disabled veterans at a mountain resort.

"For me, that's what it took," Halsted says. "Seeing other people with similar injuries -- and even injuries that I considered worse -- doing things more than me. Like a quadriplegic skiing."

After initial trepidation, Halsted blossomed as a "sit skier." He now competes in cross country and biathlon on the U.S. Paralympic National Team.

Not one, but three different non-profits based in Sun Valley seek to replicate Halsted's story. In recent years, those groups have attracted hundreds of wounded veterans to winter and summer sports clinics. Winter features Nordic and alpine skiing and sledge hockey. Summer camps offer hand cycling, rafting, fly fishing, or even paragliding.

Longtime swim coach Karen Morrison founded the newest local Paralympic sport club, called AquAbility.

"It's a big movement in Paralympic sports to collaborate with each other and to cross-train and get everybody involved in as many different things as possible," she says. "Swimming and skiing are just great; they go together real well. Same with running and swimming."

There is a "back to the future" element to this. During World War II, the U.S. Navy took over Sun Valley Lodge and converted it into a convalescent center for injured combat veterans. The resort reopened to the public in 1946.

A renewed focus on healing wounded veterans made sense given the large number of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with disabling injuries. That according to Marc Mast, who first founded Sun Valley Adaptive Sports (now re-branded as Higher Ground Sun Valley) and then founded the Wood River Ability Program. Mast says having multiple non-profits within a relatively small population here makes fundraising a challenge.

"It's not easy, but we have a little different emphasis," Mast says. "Actually, it is starting to work out that there's a niche for everybody."

Mast was one of the area leaders to petition the U.S. Olympic Committee to designate Sun Valley as an official Olympic and Paralympic Training Site. The USOC granted that status late last year. Mast says local groups hope the Olympic designation will boost fundraising and draw more athletes and visitors.

On the Web:

Wood River Ability Program
Higher Ground Sun Valley
USOC designates Sun Valley as an Olympic and Paralympic training site (Nov. 2012) - USOC

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.