After a day looking back, Kennedy moves forward | SteamboatToday.com

After a day looking back, Kennedy moves forward

— By the end of March, Craig Kennedy had skied down the Vertigo run at Steamboat Ski Area countless times in his life.

In one sense, that's simply because it's a good run, banking to skier's right about a third of the way down Heavenly Daze.

"It's got good pitch," he said. "No one ever skis it, so there's always fresh snow on it. I ski it four or five times a season."

In another sense, it's still his first trip down Vertigo that keeps him going back, and it was that run that had him there March 28, 20 years after a life-changing accident and in the midst of a life-changing decision.

Kennedy crashed hard on Vertigo in late March 1996. He lost the use of his legs but eventually found a new career, almost a life mission, helping people with disabilities travel and enjoy outdoor activities.

For six of those years, he was one of the central figures at Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, helping the organization grow dramatically. This spring, however, was his last with STARS.

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A tough fall

Kennedy may ski Vertigo regularly because he likes it, but he skis it late every March to remember the accident that's ever since confined him to a wheelchair, or, on the mountain, a sit ski.

He's told the story of his accident a million times and didn't hesitate to tell it again this year after his annual trip down the run.

He waited tables at Ragnar's at the ski area that winter, and he always squeezed in a few laps after his shift. With his work clothes and, notably, his boots, in his backpack, he headed for Vertigo that day because he never had.

"I'd skied a couple hundred days in Steamboat in two seasons, and I hadn't ever skied it," he said. "They used to groom Vertigo a lot, a lot more than they do now, so it was a groomed run at the time, and I started going down, making big GS turns.

"I got to the cat track at Boulevard, and I just went to jump and my feet came right out from under me. It was like a stepping on an ice rink with sneakers kind of thing."

He was roaring down the trail and flew far once he got airborne, finally stopping nearly 300 yards down from where he took off.

"I went flying, landed and blacked out," he said.

He landed on his back, on those boots.

His memories from the ensuing minutes, not to mention weeks, were hazy. Someone witnessed the crash, and ski patrol was on the scene quickly. Kennedy woke up enough to comment that he couldn't feel his feet, but that seemed like the least of his problems at the moment as patrollers took him down the mountain, and he headed toward what would be a long stint of hospital stays.

The boots shattered his spine and led to his paralysis, but looking back now, he sees them almost as fortunate.

"If I hadn't had that backpack, I could have landed on my head and broken my neck," he said.

Making a decision

Doctors consistently told Kennedy movement in his legs may come back. Though the chances dwindled over time, there wasn't ever a single "there's-no-hope" moment.

He didn't wait for one, either.

"I asked the doctor, 'Give me something. I have to know,' and he said, 'Give it a couple of weeks, and if you don't get anything back, you may have to accept you'll be in a wheelchair,'" Kennedy said. "I remember counting down every day, sitting there trying to move my legs or wiggle my toes for hours, expecting at some point it would just happen. After two weeks, I woke up on that last day and decided I had a big question to ask myself."

His answer has defined the 20 years since.

"'Are you going to be miserable or are you going to be happy and deal with it?'" he said, recalling his question. "It was an important choice to make. It was so easy to be negative and so easy to say, 'Screw this, I'm done.' I had to decide that I was going to be happy. That was that day."

Kennedy said the outpouring of support from Steamboaters he received during his hospital stay — $20,000 of contributions — ensured he'd be back to the town, and upon returning, he started working at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort.

His work for people with disabilities took shape in the ensuing years. He and wife, Andrea Kennedy, started Access Anything in 2003, and he started CK Consulting, advising companies on accessibility issues, in 2004. They also helped facilitate camps for veterans with disabilities, something Kennedy helped fold into STARS when he started there in 2010 as the program director.

The work with members of the military always stood out for him.

"I just always got along with those guys," he said. "They always seemed like family right away."

Kennedy said STARS focuses on helping people with disabilities learn and participate in recreational activities. The program now offers about 2,500 lessons per winter.

"I'll miss the clients the most," he said, "The kids, the vets, the adults, I'll miss that the most."

Now, he said, he's right back to where he was before he started with STARS, back focused on CK Consulting. He's already logged a trip to Seattle since the end of the ski season in that world.

He's also joining his wife's franchise of Juice Plus+ as a distributor.

"The right thing will find me if I don't find it," he said. "Sometimes, you have to jump, if you see the net there or not. Jump and the net will appear.”

Plenty will be different, he said, but one thing will remain the same. He plans to continue skiing Vertigo every March.

It took him five years after the accident to get good enough on a sit ski to be able to tackle the expert run, but he’s made a point of skiing it every year since.

He found something new on Vertigo this March, a group of nearly 40 friends waiting for him, a surprise set up by Andrea to celebrate 20 years since the accident.

Many more waited at the bottom of the mountain for a surprise party later that day.

No matter what happens, he plans to be back there on Vertigo next year.

"I've taken a big leap here, and it feels right, and it feels good,” he said. “I'm really happy about it. It's all a positive thing, for sure."

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9