Brandon Bland uses a monoski, with outriggers to help with balance. Instructor Mike McGregor is tethered while Bland gets the hang of things.
For people who’ve had to recover from serious injuries, like spinal cord damage or an amputation, re-learning how to do the most basic things can be a big challenge. And then there are the not-so-basic things — like racing down an icy mountain on skis or a snowboard. That’s what dozens of people with disabilities were learning to do recently at Liberty Mountain in Pennsylvania.
Brandon Bland was injured a little more than a year ago.
“I’m able to do a little standing, do a little walking with my walker. This morning I brushed my teeth over the sink. It’s been a year and a month since I’ve been able to stand at a sink and a mirror and brush my teeth. That’s a big deal for me.”
Also a big deal: getting on a ski lift for the first time in his life. On this bright, sunny morning, the chair lift climbs a few hundred feet to the top of the bunny slope.
Bland usually gets around in a wheelchair, but today he’s on a monoski: a bucket seat, mounted on a single ski.
Volunteer instructor Mike McGregor gives Bland some final instructions, before his first run. “I want you to keep your eyes up, looking forward. If you look down at the snow, you tend to lose your balance.”
As they head downhill, McGregor is tethered by a cord to Bland’s monoski, to help keep him from losing control.
Still, there are a lot of falls along the way.
“You can’t be scared to fall,” Bland laughs, as he tumbles onto the snow once again, at the bottom of the slope.
His cousin, Terrence James, is waiting with a camera.
“Hey, I would have never thought he would have come out to Pennsylvania to go skiing,” says James. “I ain’t going skiing, but as he’s falling down, I’m taking all the pictures, and I’m making sure mamma, grandma, everybody else gets to see the pictures, and they’re going to relive this too.”
This past year has not been an easy one for Bland. He was partially paralyzed from below the ribs.
Just after midnight on December 3, 2012, Bland was leaving a club on U Street, in Northwest D.C.
“As we exited the club, the guy just started shooting. He was shooting at the target, and I guess I must have been standing near the guy.”
He was at the wrong place, at the wrong time. A bullet struck Bland in the back.
He says at first, he felt like it was the end of the world.
“At first you have to get in your mind that you’re in a wheelchair. It’s a little defeating, for lack of a better word.”
He has been working with therapists at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Network in D.C., whose staff helped coordinate the trip to Liberty Mountain. Lately, especially in the past 30 days, Bland has been regaining movement, and confidence.
“Now I’m starting to venture out, like this. I would have never done this a couple of months ago. Even though I was getting better, I still would have never even came to this trip. I would have made an excuse for myself.”
“I’ve been trying to get him to clubs and go to the mall, and get out of the house,” says James. “He don’t want to do nothing.”
“You get in depressed modes, but you got to just pick yourself up. At first, I was probably my worst enemy. But now – you got to motivate yourself.”
Lately Bland has been motivated. He wants to get back to work, or go back to school.
“Some people think this is the end of the world, and it’s not. They have things for us to go skiing. Come on, now, most people think skiing is like, standing up. Nah, I still went down the hill too.”
One of the instructors helping out on the slopes is snowboarder Reggie Showers.
“At the age of 14, I was electrocuted while playing on top of a train, a boxcar, just being a silly kid.”
Showers had both legs amputated below the knee when he was fourteen. Now he’s a registered snowboarding instructor. He walks, and snowboards, on prosthetic legs.
“I never let the amputation stop me from achieving some of the goals that I wanted to achieve in life.”
Goals, like racing motorcycles. “As a career, professionally, for probably, over 20 years.”
When he first tried snowboarding, at a resort in the Pocono Mountains, there was no specialized adaptive program for people like him. He had to figure things out on his own.
“You know, my leg popped off a couple times. People were screaming and hollering, because they didn’t know I was an amputee. They were like, ‘Oh my God, he lost his leg!’”
He says keeping your leg on is actually not that easy.
“So there’s little things that me as an amputee snowboard instructor, knows through experience, through trial and error, little stuff that I’ve learned over time that I can offer to the new adaptive snowboarder.”
On this recent morning, there are more than fifty people with disabilities going up and down the slopes here at Liberty Mountain. These two days of adaptive skiing instruction are put on by the group Baltimore Adaptive Sports and Recreation.
Pamela Lehnert is the executive director of Baltimore Adaptive Sports and Recreation. She is a recreation therapist, and she’s put on this skiing event each year for the past fifteen years. She says it’s not just about skiing.
“Oh, I think it transcends into every-day life. You’re successful here, you feel like – I don’t like the word ‘normal’ – but you feel like everybody else.”
Back on the slopes, Brandon Bland is still getting the hang of things, with instructor Mike McGregor.
“Don’t focus on the little kids, look away from the little kids, look away from the trees,” says McGregor, as he lifts Bland after a fall.
“I know, I know,” says Bland, laughing.
“You ready to go up again?” McGregor asks.
Outside the ski lodge, Bland’s cousin, Terrence James, has been watching the whole time.
“I’m proud of you, bro,” says James.
“I’m proud of myself. I was going to back out to be honest with you.”
Run after run, fall after fall, Bland doesn’t want to quit. Eventually though, the slopes are getting quiet as skiers head in for lunch.
“I wanted to keep going. I knew they had to take a lunch break. And he was probably getting tired of picking me up. But I’d do it again, of course.”
Music: "On Top of the World" by Guitar Tribute Players from Acoustic Tribute to Imagine Dragons