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Wounded Warriors build confidence at Steamboat Ski Area

Dennis Walburn

Dennis Walburn, an Army veteran who lost a leg in an explosion in Iraq, attended the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports camp this week at Steamboat Ski Area. With a special prosthetic he uses for skiing and an adaptive, two-ski system he designed, Walburn easily navigated Steamboat's NASTAR race course Thursday.
John F. Russell

— As Dennis Walburn slid off the Christie Peak Express on a sunny Thursday afternoon, he said emphatically he has no regrets.

He wouldn't ever go back and change the fateful decision he made in 2005 to volunteer for deployment to Iraq with the Army National Guard, a decision that ultimately cost him most of his left leg in a roadside bomb blast that took the lives of nine others, including one U.S. soldier and three Iraqi children.

"I wish I had my leg back," he said simply as he waited for his wife, Brenda, to join him at the top of the Christie lift. "But I wouldn't not do my job."

Skiing, a sport he fell in love with when he first got on snow about eight years before his injury, has become an even bigger part of his life since the amputation.

Now, in his third year at the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports All-Mountain Ski & Ride Camp, Walburn spent the past week racing around the mountain with his wife, and with a smile on his face.

After an amputation, "your ability to even be out in public provides challenges for you," he said. But skiing changed that.

"It really builds your confidence and courage back to where you want it," he said.

The camp began last Sunday and concluded Thursday, offering more than 30 participants guidance and support as they took on Steamboat Ski Area with their adaptive equipment.

Twelve of the campers, like Walburn, were from the Wounded Warriors Project, but all dealt with disabilities ranging from blindness to amputations.

Some used sit-skis, and the blind skiers were guided down using whistles and verbal cues.

Walburn had invented his own set-up: He took two skies and attached them together in front of and behind the bindings, offering him the flexibility of two skis with the support of a monoboard.

Bob Emerson, in his fifth season as a coach with STARS through the Adaptive Adventures program, said for many disabled skiers, the challenge is part of the attraction to the sport.

"It's definitely liberating," Emerson said. "It's a little bit of conquering the mountain."

Emerson lost part of a leg in a car crash when he was 9 and learned to ski through the Children's Hospital in Denver. He's since competed on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.

"It gives you that freedom of motion that may have been interrupted," he said. "It's just unrestricted fun."

Wounded Warrior Michael Johnston didn't start snowboarding until after he lost his left leg below the knee after a being hit by a car in Virginia while stationed there in the Navy.

He was only 21 at the time of the amputation, but after nine months of learning the ropes of his new prosthetic leg, his motivation was only amplified as he aimed to prove he still could do the same things he could before his injury, if not more.

"I didn't think of recovery as going home and being coddled," he said. "I saw recovery as jumping right back in the mix and doing what I had been doing."

"Those nine months (of rehabilitation) were really my learning curve, to learn how to adapt and how to overcome obstacles."

But he took it to another level. He went through the lengthy process of getting approved to return to active duty, and went overseas with the Navy back to the Middle East and then to Japan.

"Once you lose some of your ability, you want to take advantage of every bit of independence," said Johnston, who also is a member of the USA Paratriathlon National Team.

On Thursday afternoon, Johnston had the chance to work with two Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club coaches on the NASTAR racecourse, through a new STARS program aimed at developing the next Paralympians.

"I would like to pursue continuing to better myself," he said.

Walburn also whizzed through the gates Thursday, skiing the Steamboat NASTAR course for the first time.

Now medically retired from the Army, he works as a civilian at the Pentagon.

But he keeps finding himself in Colorado, among the mountains, flying across the snow.

"It's just clean, exciting fun," Walburn said. "It's clean speed."

To reach Nicole Inglis, call 970-871-4204 or email ninglis@SteamboatToday.com