Who: Cheryl Jensen, President and Founder of Vail Veterans Program
All photos courtesy of Vail Veterans Program.
Why I interviewed her: Because as I’ve stated many times before, skiing should be for everyone. There are many obstacles to accessing the mountains, from cost to the remoteness of many ski areas to the sheer difficulty of learning to make it down the hill to an ingrained ski culture that often makes outsiders feel unwelcome. The disabled, who must access and learn how to use highly specialized equipment and navigate a lift-served skiing world that is not necessarily constructed to serve them, are among those that start with an enormous disadvantage. The Vail Veterans Program deconstructs this puzzle for a venerable group of disabled: combat-injured U.S. military veterans healing from catastrophic injuries, including but not limited to, “loss of multiple limbs, severe burns, spinal cord injuries, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and traumatic brain injuries.” The program flies these healing wounded out to Vail Mountain and, at no cost to them, hosts them and their families for multi-day programs of skiing, healing, and conviviality. I wanted to get an understanding of why they started this program, how they manage to do it at no cost to the participants, and how the ski industry was building up its overall capacity to serve sit-skiers and others using non-traditional equipment or methods. There was no one better to speak to this than Cheryl Jensen, the founder and leader of the whole operation.
What we talked about: The unusual Fourth of July holiday in Vail Valley; the foundation’s roots in adaptive programs at Breckenridge and social events in Washington, D.C. and Vail; the serendipitous meeting that launched the first event; how a one-time event with seven wounded veterans from Walter Reed Medical Center expanded into a full-fledged program; the military centers that the Vail Veterans Program works with today; how a wounded first-time snowboarder-turned-monoskier in the program became a competitor at the 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi Paralympics; what one veteran said to Cheryl to inspire her to grow the program into a full-time affair; how she felt when the first planeload of wounded veterans arrived on the tarmac at Eagle County Airport; why the physical limitations are only part of the trauma the wounded veterans are coping with; the healing power of moving through the program with similarly injured veterans; the deep connections that veterans across generations share; Vail Ski Resort’s adaptive program and lift system and how they accommodate the Vail Veterans Program; the growth of adaptive skiing infrastructure around the U.S.; the exhilaration of schussing from never-ever to Vail’s Back Bowls in the space of several days; the challenges that sit skiers and others face in getting around the mountain and how that’s evolving; the power of quieting the mind through sports; how to maximize the value of a multi-day program while managing your own expectations, from a foundation point of view, for what’s realistic to achieve in that timeframe; the Vail Veterans Program’s relationship with the United States military and how they work together to choose participants; why Cheryl stopped calling the event the “Soldiers Ski Weekend”; the veteran who swore he would be “dead in the gutter” without this program; recollections of a heliski adventure; how the program is able to include flights, hotels, meals, gear, lessons, and everything else to participants at no cost; the stress caregivers bear and why the Vail Veterans Program tailors separate programs for them; why families are invited along with the vets; the content of their summer programs; why one element of the program runs in Orlando; and how the program and its past participants have dealt with the shutdown orders and isolation of Covid-19.
What I got wrong: I referred generically to all veterans as “soldiers” several times in the first half of the interview, before Cheryl shared an anecdote about the veteran who pulled her aside at an early event and informed her that marines were not soldiers. Oops. Well, I didn’t know that either. Consider me corrected.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview: Because as the ski industry states its intent to make skiing more inclusive, we ought to consider what that means in the broadest possible context. In Storm Skiing Podcast conversations with National Brotherhood of Skiers President Henri Rivers and Winter 4 Kids CEO Schone Malliet, we talked extensively about skiing’s failure to market to and develop more diverse skiers. While veterans do not on their own fall into that category, the Vail Veterans Program’s focus on the tragically wounded among them spotlights the importance of better serving disabled skiers in general. Plus, this is the month that the U.S. celebrates its freedom with the Fourth of July holiday, and there’s no better time to thank our veterans for their commitment to our nation and the sacrifices they have made in its name.
More about the Vail Veterans Program:
Recorded on: July 6, 2020
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