I was still driving my 1969 Pontiac GTO, so it had to been the early 80’s. One night I ran across my neighbor Rico. Rico, to me, has the look of a math professor. He’s a slender built man, 5’7’’ or so with a receding curly hairline. For years he drove a VW micro bus pickup. Rico doesn’t have the look of an athlete, but he’s ran the Boston marathon in a very respectable time. As a downhill skier he can hold his own against anyone at the Marquette Mountain ski hill. For a quiet, unassuming man, he’s pretty solidly built. One Thursday night in the early 80’s he told me he had a friend that created a downhill ski for people with disabilities and asked me if I want to be the first to test it out? I said sure! Rico then stopped me, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘’is this bar talk, or are you serious?’’
You’ve done it, I’ve done it, everyone’s done it. Hi! It’s been a long time! Let’s get together! I’ll call you! Sure I’ll come to your party! Etc. etc. etc. But never do it. Rico called it bar talk, but it can happen anytime or anywhere, even church. I’ll never forget when Rico looked me in the eyes and said that. I paused, looked him back into the eyes and responded, ‘’I don’t know if I’ll be able to operate the ski, but I’ll look at it. If I can I will.’’ ‘’Ok what are you doing tomorrow?’’ ‘’looking at a prototype ski?’’ ‘’Can you come over at 10 (am)?’’ Rico’s mother lived next door to my house on east Ridge street. ‘’How about noon?’’ ‘’Ok.’’
The next day, Friday, at noon I’m next door meeting the man who made his own downhill ski for people with disabilities. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It looked like one of those plastic sleds you had when you were a kid that could fit two people on it with the plastic hands that always broke, except this sled was solid. It’s main sled part was made of fiberglass rather than plastic, so it strong and solid. It had a roll bar just behind a seat back that had more seatbelts and straps to tie you down then you’d ever need. Covering the sled part was a nylon fabric with a zipper down the length. Once you were sitting inside the sled and strapped down, you could pull the zipper up so your body was covered. I guess it would be like a kayak. It was to keep the snow off your legs and body so you didn’t become wet and cold. I looked at the sled for less than two seconds and knew I was going down Marquette Mountain in it.
Rico and his friend lifted me out of my wheelchair and lowered me into the sled. They strapped me in place, which felt very confining, and I tested it out on the living room floor. We didn’t move the sled across the living room floor, the sled had two metal runners bolted to the bottom side that were very sharp. I just moved my arms around as if I was trying to turn the sled going down the ski hill. My first impression was this sled was going to fly down the ski hill in a straight line very well and very fast. To steer the sled, the inventor had made these two mini ski poles. They looked like regular ski poles, except they were only 8 to 10’’ long. My hands are paralyzed, so we decided we could duct tape them to my hands. Add a hat and mittens, and I was ready to go skiing.
The next day, Saturday (it was either my birthday or the day before, making it 1982 or 1983), I meet Rico and his friend, the inventor, at the Marquette Mountain ski hill. It was raining slightly, so the snow was hard packed and going to be fast. This was before global warming, so the snow in Marquette stayed on the ground well into April and May. My birthday is April 17. This was the last weekend for skiing at the hill. Come Monday, the ski season was over until next winter.
To get up the hill, we decided to have a worker at the ski hill pull me up the hill behind a snowmobile. The ski sled had a 20 foot nylon strap that could be fastened to the front of the sled or the rear. They hooked it to the front and pulled me up the hill. Before we left the bottom of the hill for the first time, Rico asked me what hill we should go down first? My junior year in high school, before the accident, I had taken a skiing class. It did give me a little familiarity of the different runs at the ski hill, so when Rico suggested going down Rocket run first, I knew what it meant, the steepest fastest run on the hill. My head was thinking Ridge run, a longer, slower and much safer hill to start with, but my mouth opened and ‘’sure?’’ came out. Rico looked at me, then told the guy on the snowmobile to bring us to the top of Rocket run.
At the top of the Rocket, things look so much smaller at the bottom of the hill. People looked like ants and the ski lodge looked like a small cabin. Rico took the nylon strap off the front of the sled and fastened it to the rear. He then wrapped the end of the 20 foot strap around his waist and tied it secure. It wasn’t coming off of him even if he fell. Rico looked at me like it was last chance to chicken out, then a gentle little push and off I went.
Oh crap! Right away the speed was amazing. I started down the hill at an angle, my thought was to zig zag down the hill like a skier, but that plan ended in about 3 seconds. As soon as Rico tried to slow me down, the ski sled, from the drag on the nylon strap, went straight … down the hill and it wasn’t going to turn. I don’t know how fast a skier can ‘’bomb’’ down Rocket, but how ever fast that is I was now doing it in a prototype ski sled. After 5 seconds I didn’t even want to try turning anymore. Now I was hoping no one crossed my path because I’m not stopping until the bottom of the hill. Every little bump in the hill launched me 5 to 10 feet through the air. When the sled landed snow flew in my face blocking my view for a second or two. You’ll never believe how fast we were flying down the hill.
Scared? Excited? I’m thinking about the beginning of the TV show, the 6 million dollar man when they show the spacecraft tumbling out of control. The pilot’s body is torn to pieces so they turn him into the six million dollar man with new legs and arm. If my sled looses it and starts to tumble, it’s going to feel just like that spacecraft crashing to me.
About 2/3 down the hill, after flying through the air and landing, I wipe the snow from my goggles. Oh crap! We’re heading right for the ski lodge and people at full speed. I try to put my ski poles into the ground, but all that did was to cause snow to fly up into my face. If you’ve never been to Marquette Mountain, the ski lodge has very large plate glass windows on the ski hill side so you can sit inside and look at the hill. At the speed we were going and the short distance left to the lodge, we, both Rico and I were about to go right through the window. That’s after we ran over a few people standing there with their skis on.
My father owns the ski hill. I can already hear him bitching how much the large plate glass window is going to cost him to replace. It’s weird what goes through your mind just before you crash. After just missing two young girls that were able to just get out of the way of me and my sled, I can feel Rico slowing us down. Again I try pushing my tiny little ski poles into the ground, but it’s more show then anything. I could have said no to going down Rocket first. What the hell was I thinking? This is going to hurt!
Rico, the world class skier that he is suddenly turned into an anchor. I couldn’t tell you if we stopped 10 feet or 20 feet before crashing through the large plate glass window, my trying to stop with the tiny little poles was throwing so much snow into my face, but coming to a stop because of Rico stopping from behind rather than the sudden impact from a glass window from the front was a relief. Five seconds earlier I had no doubt in my mind we were going through the window of the lodge, no doubt what so ever. We were still going that fast at the bottom of the hill.
Right away Rico skis up to me. ‘’Are you OK?’’ ‘’Sure, but let’s try a different hill next?’’ being a man, I didn’t want Rico to know I just had the crap scared out of me. After a couple times down Ridge Run and Snowfield we called it a day. Then into the bar for one of Whitney’s world famous bloody marys https://www.famousbloodymarymix.com/ , and it was another fun day.
The next year I bought my own sled. Of course Rocket was the first hill we went down with it, again the same scary oh crap we’re going through the plate glass window ride. With the new sled, we used the chairlift to get up the hill all the time. We had found with the prototype sled we could use the chairlift. When it was our turn to get on the chairlift, the chairlift attendant would stop the chairlift and help Rico lift me on the seat. Using the nylon strap, Rico would tie me on the chairlift. At the top the same thing in reverse. After a while, Rico and the chairlift guy got so good at it they quit stopping the chairlift. They’d only slow it down a little. I skied for 3 more winters. Then after going down the small moguls I crashed and burned popping something in my right shoulder. For the next 3 months I’d wake up at 6 am to take a prescription strength motrin so I could painfully get out of bed. I was going to college at the time, which meant transferring out of bed at 8am into my wheelchair, into my shower chair, back into my wheelchair, back into bed to get dressed, back into the wheelchair, into my car to go to college, back into the wheelchair at college, back into my car to go home and back into my wheelchair once home. That was if I didn’t go anywhere but college. So you can add in a few more transfers a few nights a week.
The first 3 months were painful like you’d never believe. I use my shoulders for everything. The next 3 months it was ‘’just’’ some what painful. After that injury, I only skied twice. It wasn’t fun anymore. The thought of hurting my shoulders was too much. But for three years, it was great. Thanks Rico. Great memories!