PHILIPSBURG – David "Madman" Poole's addiction to skiing hasn't changed, but his method of getting down the mountain did, drastically, after he hit a rock just before going over a cliff and broke his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Peter Drakos was living a normal life as an environmental analyst for a Seattle transportation agency before he was diagnosed with ataxia, a debilitating, life-shortening, degenerative neuro-muscular disorder for which there is no treatment. Now, his body convulses uncontrollably and he can't walk without assistance.
Sherene "Lefty" Ricci had to have her right leg amputated after a long battle with cancer.
On the slopes of Discovery Ski Area near Philipsburg, this group of skiers shares at least two things in common: a terrible obstacle in their past and a determination to not let it get in the way of having fun.
Ricci said the only frustrating part about losing her leg was the looks people gave her. Those looks changed when she started skiing again.
"I was about a year out of my amputation, and I wasn't used to people staring at me," she said. "I was used to being in the city and people giving me the 'Oh, poor you' look. But then on the mountain, people were giving me the high-five and the 'Good for you' look. And I thought, 'Wow, this is different.' After a while, it sort of builds your confidence up because everybody's stoked that I'm out here and they're cheering me on. Your confidence goes from way low to sky high."
The hardships members of the group have endured are horrific, but are rivaled by the degree to which they've led active, normal lifestyles. Now, they're all shattering a fundamental misconception: That a person needs two legs to ski.
On Wednesday, Poole, Drakos, Ricci and other adults and children with disabilities were treated to a day on Discovery's slopes courtesy of a partnership of groups that specialize in adaptive skiing and physical therapy.
For those still struggling to adapt to being disabled, the trip was a reaffirming and inspirational rally that demonstrated all that is possible, even if you can't walk on your own.
Molly Blair, program coordinator at the New Directions Wellness Center in Missoula, teamed up with Butte-Silver Bow Developmental Disability Services program director Todd Hoar, the Missoula Department of Parks and Recreation, ski patrollers from Montana Snowbowl and Discovery to organize the day of skiing using specialized equipment.
Poole has adapted incredibly well to his "sit ski," a device that allows him to carve groomers, hit jumps and attack powder. He's sponsored by several companies and will compete in the X Games later this winter.
His role in the trip was to provide insight, advice and encouragement to the beginners like Drakos, who hadn't skied with adaptive equipment before Wednesday.
Hoar and other volunteers completed special training in the use of sit skis, which requires someone to ski behind while holding the reigns and help with turning and stopping.
It works incredibly well, and Drakos was grinning ear-to-ear within the first two minutes.
"I'm excited and thrilled," he said. "It's so much fun."
Drakos talks about his condition, which affects only one out of every 50,000 people, matter-of-factly. He says skiing is not only good for his mental health, but slows down the disease that is taking his life.
"It's degenerative, so it's not going to get any better," he said. "But one thing that keeps the progression from going so fast is exercise and physical therapy. So the stronger I am and the more I can stay on top of my fitness, the slower the progression is."
That means going to the gym and doing things like skiing and biking are literally saving his life.
The New Directions Wellness Center, part of the University of Montana's School of Physical Therapy, is a community-based exercise program for people with disabilities.
"We're special because we have staff to be able to assist people with their exercise program," Blair said. "It's more of a comfort place for people to come, so they're not just entering into (other gyms) with people who are fit or able-bodied and they can feel at home because they're surrounded by individuals who have similar disabilities. They can feel better about themselves, and it's a huge social support system as well for these folks."
Blair explained that the social aspect of ski trips such as Wednesday's is probably their biggest benefit. The program also organizes bicycling trips in the summer.
"The exercise is secondary, but the social benefit is huge," she said. "It's just more of a support system, almost like a family. Friendships form. We hear from older gentlemen that go have lunch and coffee together. All of my staff are students and the clients really enjoy them. It's kind of an intergenerational interaction as well. And it gives the students real-world experience."
Blair said she feels fortunate that her work is helps provide these experiences for people with disabilites.
"I'm a big recreator and I enjoy being outside, and that's why a lot of us live in Missoula," she said. "In the last several years, a lot of us have gotten excited about getting people outside. I'm a big skier and we connected with Dream Adaptive up in Whitefish several years ago. I teamed up with Todd and he has the sit skis. And he said he would be more than happy to meet us over here. It makes me smile."
Ricci, who works as an instructor at Lookout Pass Ski Area, said adaptive sports programs are great because of the camaraderie. She and Poole have competed in everything together from bike races to ski days.
"Skiing gets everybody out of their comfort zone, but a dude in a wheelchair is way, way out of the comfort zone," she said. "You need to be independent and go rock this stuff the way you used to. At the New Directions Wellness Center, you're always welcome there."
For Poole, the fact that he can't use his legs hasn't stopped him from living up to the nickname "Madman," and he'll still hit jumps and shred as hard as he used to.
"I didn't get in a wheelchair by being careful," he joked.