Disabled athletes take on mountain challenge in Vail | VailDaily.com

Disabled athletes take on mountain challenge in Vail

Melanie Wong
Vail, CO Colorado
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VAIL, Colorado – For a team of athletes at this year’s Teva Mountain Games, their sweat, work and tears have gone toward one goal – to be normal.

Well, in a way.

The Paradox Sports team will stand out at today’s and Sunday’s mountain challenge, a multi-sport team race involving kayaking, mountain biking, road biking and running, not only because they’re pretty fast, but because its members are all disabled.

Their common thread is Paradox Sports, a nonprofit organization geared at getting disabled people out in the wilderness and doing adventure sports. The idea behind the program’s work is that people can continue their adventures with the same fervor and spirit as able-bodied people despite their disabilities.

“In some strange way, our ultimate goal is to help people just be normal,” said Malcolm Daly, a team member and volunteer with Paradox. “We tell people that they can integrate back into the communities they were in before and do the activities they did before. They can go skiing or snowboarding, it doesn’t matter.”

Team guns for podium

Daly, who will be competing in the down-river kayak sprint portion of the games, suffered broken bones and extreme frostbite after a climbing accident in 1999.

After his injuries began to heal, and it became apparent that he would be seriously disabled from the frostbite damage to his feet, he opted for an amputation. For the avid climber and outdoorsman, losing his leg below the knee didn’t mean a loss of ability or freedom.

“I decided I wanted to be an amputee instead of a cripple,” he said simply. “I knew that it didn’t mean you have to have a second-rate life.”

He knew it didn’t mean he couldn’t be just as much of an athlete as before either.

“I have full expectations that we’ll be right on the podium Sunday night, and if not, we’ll be really close,” he said.

The rest of the team is made up of Iraq Army veteran Chad Jukes, Iraq Army veteran and Paradox Sports co-founder DJ Skelton, and Paralympic Nordic skier Mike Crenshaw.

Wilderness therapy

Paradox Sports started in 2007 when Skelton, who lost the use of his arm and sight in one eye in Iraq, and Timmy O’Neill, a seasoned climber and mountain man, decided that what they loved about the outdoors could help others heal physically, mentally and emotionally.

“We want to share the same experience that has changed our lives, that thing about nature that makes people psyched,” said O’Neill, explaining why a challenging climb or tearing down a mountain on a bike can be healing. “We want to prove to them that they still have this mobility, essentially that life isn’t over, but it’s begun in a new way.”

O’Neill’s first experiences with adaptive sports came through his brother, Sean, who became paraplegic after a bridge jumping accident. Together, the brothers climbed El Capitan in Yosemite, and will climb a face in Alaska later this summer for a National Geographic show.

“It’s gonna be wild,” he grins, with a mad look in his eyes.

That hardcore, no-barriers attitude is part of the way the program works. With technology and the human will, the Paradox Sports volunteers reason, you don’t really need arms to climb, nor sight to summit a mountain.

Living on the edge

For Jukes, who will be racing the road bike portion of the challenge, the loss of his leg in Iraq opened the door for even more outdoor adventures than before his accident.

Jukes had always been an avid climber and athlete, but looking back on the two years since his amputation, he admits he’s “done some crazy things.” He’s been surfing, ice climbing and mountaineering for the first time, he said.

Recently at an ice climbing event in Ouray, called “Gimps on Ice,” Jukes, Daly, O’Neill and other Paradox Sports volunteers got to see people fitted with adaptive equipment and scaling the ice faces.

It’s amazing what that kind of therapeutic effect that activity can bring, Jukes said.

“I’ve seen people have a complete change in heart and mindset,” he said. “You can tell they’re just not happy with their situation in life. They’re bummed out about their disability, and they feel like less of a person, especially service people. I feel that in a lot of situations, getting into the outdoors can be more therapeutic and do more for somebody that traditional counseling therapy. It’s pretty amazing.”

Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or mwong@vaildaily.com.