Breckenridge disabled sports event helps Las Vegas shooting survivor move forward with her life
Summit Daily News
Last week at The Hartford Disabled Sports USA Ski Spectacular, Chelsea Romo dabbled with sled hockey, snowboarding and other winter sports.
For the 29-year-old from Marietta, California, though, swimming is the sport she’d really love to try again.
That’s because ever since Oct. 1, 2017, Romo hasn’t been able to submerge her face in water due to a terrible facial injury as the result of the Las Vegas shooting.
Romo was there that fateful night, in the front row at the Route 91 Country Music Festival on the Las Vegas Strip, when shrapnel from the rounds shot off into the crowd by perpetrator Stephen Paddock left her with what she estimated to be a baseball-sized hole in her head.
“I can’t wait until the day I can just dive in,” Romo said of swimming again.
It’s adaptive sports programs like last week’s Disabled Sports USA event at Breckenridge Ski Resort that are helping Romo continue to improve her own health condition after that dreadful incident 14 months ago, the deadliest mass shooting committed by an individual in U.S. history.
Romo was one of 851 people injured that night, as 58 more lost their lives. Despite the horrid situation and the trying aftermath, during which she slowly but surely regained vision and underwent seven total surgeries, Romo has tried to focus on finding the silver linings in her situation.
A surprising invite
One of those silver linings came a couple of months back, while she sat and ate dinner with her family at a Denny’s back home in California. While the rain poured outside, Romo sat there scrolling through her Facebook messenger when she saw a message from a representative with the Disabled Sports USA program. It was an invitation to come take part and try out winter snow sports during The Hartford’s annual adaptive sports program at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
“I was just looking down,” Romo said, “and was like, ‘This is not real.’ Like, who is going to take care of me to fly out there? To stay? To ski? There’s no way this is real.”
The invitation meant Romo would return to Colorado where she visited her family in Aurora intermittently as a child. Drives from California to Aurora always included the mountain passes of the high country.
“And I would always look at it,” she said, “and it was so pretty.”
Through her childhood and young adult years, Romo always wanted to try snowboarding after skiing a single time at Winter Park Resort when she was 8 years old. Last week at Breckenridge, Romo started small, setting a goal for herself to balance well enough on her board to make it onto a chairlift by the end of the week.
“I’ve fallen a lot,” Romo said. “We had to find out which foot goes first — literally the beginning. I just made it to the slope.”
Even with the slow start, Romo regarded her time in Breckenridge last week as “amazing.” She was candid in that she didn’t know what she was getting herself into before she came to the Rocky Mountains. That said, the reality that she’s been able to learn something new and feel accomplished in that she can do new things has meant the world to her. As has interacting with other disabled participants who went through terrible accidents or misfortune.
“Meeting everyone is like a family,” Romo said. “Everybody has kind of gone through something and everybody has some type of disability, and we make light of it. Normally at home, everyone treads so lightly and doesn’t know how to approach you on things. And here, some guy is like, ‘Hey, drop your eye out into my drink.’ That’s the humor that’s hilarious, because everybody kind of gets it.”
Romo brought with her to Breckenridge her friend Jill, the same woman who was by her bedside after the shooting, helping to wash her hair. Jill, the mother of Romo’s 12-year-old stepdaughter, also grew up snowboarding and was by Romo’s side throughout the Ski Spectacular last week.
“It’s a little vacation,” Romo said. “To me, it’s exciting to get out there and try something I’m afraid of. I’m very precautious of everything now, since the incident. It’s just getting out there and going out of my comfort zone and seeing that getting out of my comfort zone is OK. It’s good. It’s a big accomplishment.”
The night of the shooting
Before the Las Vegas shooting, Romo described herself as “hell on wheels,” devoting as many as 60 hours a week to her hospital administration job. Since the incident, she’s channeled that fevered energy, to accomplish new things for her children, aged 2 and 6. Just to be able to see again is huge for Romo. When the shooting took place, Romo described the sound as similar to the candy Pop Rocks. After her friend told her to duck, the moment went into slow motion, before the only color Romo could see out of her right eye was orange. The next thing she knew, strangers were grabbing her by underneath her armpits, pulling her over a fence before she rested on a stranger’s lap while maintaining consciousness, unable to feel the pain. About an hour later, Romo was transported on a golf cart next to another woman who, sadly, died soon after. Romo herself was in and out of consciousness. Eventually she made it to an ambulance where she met a nurse who she’s friends with to this day. They have matching tattoos to prove it.
In total, Romo suffered from a brain bleed and shattered bones throughout her face that required an initial six-hour surgery. At first, doctors though she may lose her speech and vision. She ultimately didn’t. In the end, she’s slowly regained 20-30 vision in her right eye while she’s regained 90 percent of her upper-left eyelid thanks to numerous surgeries. Her cheek has two titanium plates and she has had several screws inserted to have more natural motion.
A year later
Then on Oct. 2 of this year, one year and one day after the shooting, Romo received her new prosthetic left eye. Her ability to heal over the last year has enabled her to regain most of the elements of living a normal life, such as being able to drive. That said, there will always be reminders of the incident, such as the constant irritation in her eyes, her sinuses and her left shoulder blade which is permanently raised higher than her right because of a ricochet of a bullet and the whiplash that ensued.
Her balance, though, she has that again, enabling her to snowboard this week and enabled her to get to meet other inspirational adaptive participants such as a young girl named Lilly. At last week’s event, Romo befriended the fourth-grade student from Texas who is a double-amputee. Described as “a ball of sunshine,” by Romo, Lilly helped Romo to learn the basics of snowboarding.
Looking ahead, along with swimming, Romo said she wants to keep up with snowboarding. That’s all in the future, though. In the moment, last week while she was still in Breckenridge, she just focused on taking in the beautiful sights of this mountain town.
“Seeing all of the lights on all of the trees,” Romo said, “and all of the buildings and all of the snow. We drove down and could see all of these valleys of lights. It reminded me of the movie ‘The Santa Clause.’ We’d just watched it, and how he opened his windows — him overlooking everything — it reminded of overlooking Breckenridge. Now, taking everything in, out there taking in the views, I appreciate everything. Because I went blind for seven days and they thought I’d never see again.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.