Disabled veterans test new waters scuba diving at winter sports clinic in Snowmass
April 5, 2018
Patrick Ward smiled as he waded in the pool of the Wildwood hotel at 8,000 feet above sea level with a scuba tank strapped to his back.
"I never thought I'd be able to do this again," the 62-year-old said April 2 from the edge of the pool while taking a break at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. "It's like life giving you back something you thought you had lost forever."
After 54 surgeries and one leg amputation, the retired Navy doctor's body is lighter than it used to be, and he can feel this underwater.
Still, floating at the bottom of the pool — "even though a quarter of your body is missing"— feels magical.
Ward was certified to scuba dive before his accident, which he chooses to not discuss, as he wants to only look forward with his life and not back. Instead, the fifth-generation Navy veteran calls life after the incident "my new world."
And in his new world, Ward has no time to waste.
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Undergoing more than 50 operations, after all, means, "you've spent a lot of time in a hospital bed and missed a lot of life," Ward said.
"I don't want to miss anymore life," he said. "This makes me work even harder and want to do more."
Ward was among several first-time adaptive scuba divers earlier this week at the disabled veterans sports clinic in Snowmass.
Under most circumstances, Earl Williams — a former army combat solider and Vietnam veteran — does not consider himself "a water person."
But scuba diving for his first time April 2, Williams "loved it."
"And I'll be back tomorrow," he said smiling.
Williams, who lives in California, said he also intends to pursue his new hobby when he returns home after the clinic.
"There's a place in Long Beach that I've always seen but never went to," Williams said, "but now I'm going to."
Darren Cook, a dive instructor who introduced scuba diving to the winter sports clinic 29 years ago, said he experiences this often.
"I love hearing stories of people coming back after the program and saying, 'I got certified (and) I got my son, daughter, wife certified,'" Cook said.
"This is something (disabled veterans) can do together with their families."
He recalls a particularly touching memory involving a wheelchair-bound Vietnam veteran and his wife at a scuba session five years ago.
After helping assist the veteran into the hotel pool, he and his wife of more than 40 years held hands and danced together underwater.
"She teared up and said, 'This is the first time we've danced on the same level since 1974,'" Cook said.
It's moments like these, Cook said, that make him think, "I get more out of this (clinic) than they do."
A number of disabled veterans and their caregivers, however, may beg to differ.
Marc Despes is a young Navy veteran from Miami who became paralyzed from the waist down seven months ago after a spine-crushing injury.
With a towel wrapped around his wheelchair outside the pool April 2, Despes said he is still figuring out his new world.
"There's always going to be those times when life is really hard," Despes said. "But people help (and) things like this (clinic) definitely help."
Along with physical exertion and fun, Despes said, "It is inspiring to hear other peoples' stories."
"It gives you light," he said. "Because you can't look at it like, 'I can't do what I used to do,' because then you will never do anything new."
Since his accident, Despes' girlfriend of two years, Tayla Mode, has assumed the role as his caregiver.
Mode said that Despes' recent involvement with adaptive sports has "completely changed his attitude."
"He's very reclusive at home (and) refused to try activities out of embarrassment," Mode said April 2 as she helped Despes into dry clothes. "I think this will motivate him to continue when we get home, because even when he loses the immediate support system that's here, I think he's going to want more, which is amazing."
For Ward, the benefit to traveling to Snowmass Village for five days each winter to participate in the disabled veterans clinic is simple.
"The winter sports clinic teaches you how to dream," Ward said as he teared up. "And I think there's nothing more important than that."