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One thing about working at Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra: You never know what to expect when you answer the phone.
Case in point: last winter, Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra Paralympic Sport Program Coordinator Maggie Palchak answered what seemed like a typical call from a woman inquiring about getting a Wounded Warrior on skis.
Palchak, 51, a PSIA Level 3 Adaptive Certified Instructor, was used to such calls, but this one was a little more interesting than normal. After going through the standard list of initial questions, she was still curious about the woman’s relationship to the Wounded Warrior, Cedric King.
King, the woman said, was in the process of recovering from wounds at the Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
“She didn’t sound like his partner or therapist, and he wasn’t available to answer any questions,” Palchak said. At that point, she learned the woman was the Executive Assistant to Emmy Award-winning TV and radio host Montel Williams.
A veteran of more than 20 years’ service in the Marines and the Navy, Williams, 57, is also a health and wellness entrepreneur, and a major supporter of the Wounded Warrior Project. Williams, who has himself been learning to live with Multiple Sclerosis, has frequently visited wounded warriors at Walter Reed.
He recently met King on one of his visits, and the two struck up a friendship. Less than a year from a combat injury from an improvised bomb in Afghanistan, King, 36, was getting used to life with his new prosthetic legs, as well as damage to his ulnar nerve, which limited the use of his right hand and arm.
Williams has neuropathy in his feet and legs from his MS. He found snowboarding helps his mobility issues, and wanted to share the benefits of snowsports with his new friend.
Last May, Mammoth Mountain was one of the only ski areas open in the U.S.
About 10 days before the ski area was scheduled to close, Williams brought King up to Mammoth for two days of ski lessons with the team at Mammoth’s Disabled Sports.
Williams also brought up a film crew as part of a documentary he was working on about King’s experiences. Everyone, including Palchak and her team, was wired for sound, as the crew recorded everything from the introductions, assessments, fittings and lessons on the snow.
“Cedric has an incredibly positive attitude and a calm, but determined manner,” Palchak said. “He’s focused and disciplined, and willing to put in the groundwork. He’s one of the most coachable athletes I’ve ever seen.”
She also praised King’s natural athleticism and quick learning.
“What a thinker,” she said.
One challenge to the Disabled Sports team was in making modifications to the grip of King’s outrigger to accommodate his reduced range of motion in his right hand, due to the ulnar nerve damage.
Using a tennis ball, an eyebolt and duct tape, Disabled Sports made some changes, and after input from King, former engineer and Disabled Sports volunteer E.L. Smoogen fashioned a new customized grip.
Once King got the hang of monoskiing, he was ready to move on to an intermediate run. The crew at Disabled Sports was blown away.
“He did fabulously,” Palchak said.
During the lessons, Williams told Palchak that the ultimate goal was for King to go heli-skiing in Valle Nevado, Chile. Williams also said he wanted to contract Palchak to come along as King’s instructor.
She accepted and, true to his word, Williams’ crew contacted her this past summer. Soon, Palchak was on a flight to Chile for an August ski adventure.
“As we wound up the 67 switchbacks to the ski resort, I was dazzled by the grandeur of the Andes,” Palchak said. “I also noticed the sun cups and anticipated less than ideal learning conditions.”
Even with some Spanish in her linguistic bank, Palchak was still in a foreign country, speaking a different language on never seen ski terrain with unknown lift operation conditions. And she was teaching a student who has only skied two days some three months earlier.
“We were basically back at square one,” she said.
In Chile, King was not only learning on new ski runs, but he and Palchak were also dealing with Valle Nevado’s different lifts and chair configuration, which presented new challenges.
King’s loading technique had to be modified to compensate for no armrests on the chairs, an oddity not found on the chairlifts at Mammoth. And unloading also meant dealing with oddities in the seats that resulted in sometimes getting hung up.
“Thankfully the slashing throat gesture for ‘stop’ is universal for lift operators,” she said. “Then again, this is adaptive learning. It’s surprising how that prepares you to deal with anything.”
In Palchak’s estimation, the beginning terrain was steeper than ideal for beginning lessons. The snow was hard and fast, meaning she would have to be more hands-on with King than usual with a skier back in Mammoth.
What’s more, much of the terrain consisted of cat tracks with a drop off on the left side. As a result, King quickly mastered his right turns, but was understandably apprehensive about working on his left turns.
“Who wants to learn to turn into a void?” Palchak said.
Heli-skiing was still the objective, but Day 2 brought in a forecast of storms, sending the helicopters to lower terrain, where they would stay for the remainder of King’s time in Chile.
By the morning of Day 3, the lodge (located at 10,000 feet, above the tree line) was in whiteout conditions. While fresh powder was falling outside, the whiteout conditions were unsuitable for teaching; King spent the day working out in the gym, watching training videos and discussing technique (while sampling a pisco sour or two).
Day 4 dawned as a classic bluebird day, with more than a foot of fresh snow, yielding some early morning powder runs and ideal groomed runs for learning.
“I was totally hands off on the runs, and Cedric’s skiing improved tremendously as the moves and concepts all began to fall into place,” Palchak said.
Before they knew it, it was time to leave. King made many advances, but heli-skiing would have to wait a little longer. Meanwhile, the documentary project continues, with possible next stops at Whistler and France.
Until then, Palchak said she treasures her wonderful memories of the Chile excursion, all made possible by Williams’ enthusiasm for his Wounded Warriors comrades, and the special friendship he’s forged with King.
“I’m so grateful to Montel for his gift to Cedric and this great opportunity for both myself and Disabled Sports,” she said.