You don’t meet more excited 27-year-olds than Daniel Riley. Maybe he’s excited because of his first Heli-Skiing trip. Maybe he’s excited because Vail received enough snow to re-open after closing for the season. Maybe he is excited because he survived a bomb exploding under his feet in Afghanistan, leaving him with no legs, three fewer fingers, and shrapnel scattered throughout his body.
“My heart is about the only thing that didn’t get hit.” says Daniel, in a matter-of-fact tone.
Daniel is one of 1600 American soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees. To say it changed his life is obvious, but how it changed his life is exceptional: losing his legs turned Daniel into an athlete.
Daniel skied a couple of times before his injury, but says he wasn’t a skier. Mono-skiing is now Daniels passion and since his injury in 2010 he’s pursued surfing, cycling, running, swimming, and skiing, has competed in triathlons and has plans to try rock climbing. I met Daniel for coffee in Boulder, Colorado, where everyone and their grandma is an athlete. When I asked him what sports he pursued before the injury, he just shrugged and said, “Not any, really.”
Within the first minute of meeting Daniel told me proudly that he’d skied over 50 days this winter, the highlight being a trip to CMH Gothics. While talking about the six months in the operating room and his 30-some surgeries he said: “I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even count the number of surgeries I’ve had. The number of days I’ve been skiing is a much more important statistic.”
So how did Daniel go from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, to months in the operating room, to intense rehab, to the slopes of Vail, to what he calls “the pinnacle of skiing” – a trip with CMH Heli-Skiing in interior British Columbia?
The answer is Vail Veterans, a sponsor-funded organization started in 2004 by Cheryl Jensen (whose husband, Bill, was President of Vail Resorts) and David Rozelle, Professor of Military Science at the University of Colorado. The program began on a whim, when Cheryl and David decided to host a few injured veterans at Vail. The therapeutic effects of skiing were obvious and Vail Veterans was born.
During therapy, Daniel was given the opportunity to join Vail Veterans. With nothing to lose, he gave it a try. On his first day, using a sit ski, he remembers: “I was falling down every six feet – I wasn’t really getting it. But by the third day they had to drag me off the mountain.”
A few months later, Daniel had another chance to ski Vail - this time in fresh powder. "That's what really got me," he said, before happily sharing footage of his first powder day - complete with spectacular GoPro wipeout footage:
His close friend Chris Fesmire, who discovered skiing with Vail Veterans a few years before Daneil and went heli-skiing with Daniel's group, explains in sobering terms how skiing has helped him: "The Vail Veterans program saved my life. Without mono-skiing I'd be dead in a gutter."
Skiing the Gothics was full circle for Daniel, who was born in British Columbia and moved to the United States as a teenager. In the Gothics Daniel met one of the CMH staff from the same small town on Vancouver Island where Daniel grew up. Like so many others realize about CMH Heli-Skiing, Daniel said, “It’s not just about the skiing – it’s also the lodge, the people, the whole experience.”
Daniel is now a board member of Vail Veterans, and they could have no more committed fan of the program. He concluded, “The program changed my life for the better. Now I want to do that for the next guy.”