By Julia Collins, "Erickson Tribune"
HIGHLANDS RANCH, CO (January 30, 2017) -- As the Greyhound full of rambunctious youngsters winds through sleeping giants looming above and the ground grows whiter and whiter, I strain my ears to hear the life story of one the most inspirational men I've ever met.
Dr. Severance Kelley, a resident of Wind Crest retirement community, and I are on our way to Winter Park, the Colorado ski resort home to the National Sports Center for the Disable's (NSCD) Access Ski program. I'd written about him twice since 2014 and wanted to see the 82-year-old paraskier in action.
A phenomenal downhill skier throughout early adulthood, Severance had developed post-polio syndrome in the 1990s. The condition affects polio survivors years after recovery from an initial acute attack of the polio virus. Severance developed muscle weakness and atrophy in both legs. By 1992, he gave up his beloved winter sport until a few years ago when he discovered NSCD was just an hour from Wind Crest, where he lives with his wife Inez.
We arrive at Winter Park just as rays of sunlight stretch down over the tops of the luminous peaks above. A fresh dusting of powder coats everything around us, the sky is blue, the air is crisp. It was a perfect ski day.
Greeted by NSCD volunteers, we make our way to the lodge to get Severance and the rest of the program participants—each with his or her own unique disability—outfitted with gear.
I can see the comfort in his eyes as his regular trainer, Jim Gile, enthusiastically welcomes him, along with fifteen-year NSCD volunteer veteran Mike Holland. We make our way out to the chair lift, where they hoist him into his sit ski and strap him in.
There, they adjust the sit ski to fit on the chair lift before gently hoisting him up onto the seat. I follow behind and take in the breathtaking landscape, the rhythmic hum and clack of the lift the only sound.
Once we reach the top, the lift slows to a stop and they hoist Severance off, bringing him to the side where they prepare for the run and wait for me at the top of Cramer, one of his favorites.
With Gile tethered to Severance's sit ski to control his speed, Holland zig-zags behind to protect him from potential reckless skiers. Severance uses his weight and two outrigger poles to steer.
"The skis are technologically advanced. Both skis articulate where he turns so he can really carve. They are amazing inventions," says Gile.
We set off down the slope, them in front and me behind.
"He's really skiing," says Gile. "We're controlling his speed—guiding and teaching. It's teamwork so that we're on the same page."
An experienced mountaineer who grew up in Aspen and has scaled and skied down Everest without oxygen, among several other eight-thousanders (mountains above 8,000 meters), Gile appreciates his student's sheer will and determination.
"The big thing about Severance is his attitude because he really likes to ski. He's like 'Let's try it.' You don't get that a lot. Most are hesitant," Gile says.
Throughout the morning, we ski slope after slope. I can feel Severance's concentration in the air as he steers and carves. Then he takes a spill. His sit ski catches some loose power, and he tumbles.
"This is it," I think to myself. "We're done for the day."
I ski down to him and the trainers as they turn him upright and dust him off.
"What did I do wrong?" Severance says, not an ounce of surrender in his voice. In fact, he sounds even more determined than ever—determined to improve his technique and skill.
"You're awesome!" Gile says more in awe than of encouragement.
Severance catches his breath, and we're back on the trail. We hit Jack Kendrick, Allen Phipps, and a few other greens and blues.
Finally, it's time for lunch. Back in the lodge we eat the Quizno's subs I picked up the night before. We chat with the trainers and some of the other participants.
Gile, who trained with Severance the year before, says Severance has improved greatly since last year. "It's miles under the skis," Gile says. "He's getting used to the ski, how the outriggers work."
This month, Severance heads back out to Winter Park for his third season—five more weeks on the skis. Though his post-polio syndrome has weakened his legs even more over the past year, he has continued to build upper body strength by lifting weights and working with a personal trainer in one of Wind Crest's fitness centers.
"It doesn't seem to affect my skiing," Severance says. "The skiing itself is memorable, and I'm looking forward to doing it again."
His wife Inez says she's happy he's found this outlet. "It's the one sport that he has ever had and really enjoys it. He hasn't done it for twenty years, so it's nice to get back," she says.
As for me, I'm thankful for the opportunity to spend the day with such an inspirational, admirable person. Whenever life feels tough, I think of Severance and his determination to live life to the fullest, day by day, regardless of challenges or adversities.