Former marathon runner Eric Alva assumed his sports career was over after a land mine severed his right leg on his first day of duty in Iraq in early 2003. But a Washington area group that teaches physically challenging sports to people with disabilities convinced him otherwise.
Today Alva, 34, swooshes down snowy slopes on one leg. Two poles, each equipped with a short outrigger ski, assist him with balance and controlling his speed. When he's in the mood for a more challenging workout, Alva straps himself into a "sit-ski" -- a seat perched above two skinny, fixed-position skis. A user propels the device, designed for climbing up hills as well as skiing down, by arm power.
Eric Alva, right, in a recent cross country ski race. Skiing has helped him recover from his war wounds.
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Learning "adaptive skiing," he said, taught him he could push along in life as well.
"I look at it as the beginning of my walk back up the mountain," said the ex-Marine, now working on a degree in physical therapy in San Antonio.
Disabled Sports USA (DS/USA), the Rockville-based nonprofit that put Alva back on the slopes, has helped thousands of others see their disabilities as less limiting than they imagined. For many people with a disability, adaptive sports programs provide more than just a diversion, rehabilitation experts say.
According to Lt. Col. Paul Pasquina, chief of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District, sports therapy can help stave off conditions linked to a sedentary lifestyle, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. In addition, it complements traditional vocational therapy by helping to reduce stress.
Geoff Hopkins, associate director of sports and recreation for the District-based Paralyzed Veterans of America, agrees. Paralyzed from the mid-chest down in a motorcycle accident at age 22, six months after a four-year stint in the Army, he said activities such as wheelchair racing and hand-cycling (using a bicycle whose wheels are propelled with hand cranks) gave him the confidence to complete college, get married and get on with his life.
"Someone who's injured basically has two choices," he said. "You can say, 'This is the end of my life,' or you can make the most of the opportunities you have."
A growing body of science links sports involvement to improved mood and better coping skills, said Dawn DeVries, director of continuing education and research for the American Therapeutic Recreation Association in Alexandria. Rigorous physical activity can also provide a distraction from pain.
Activities like skiing that allow people of varied abilities to participate together also have important psychosocial benefits, according to DeVries. "They allow people to spend time doing something they like and still have a social life," she said. "You can spend the day on the slopes with your family and friends, and then everyone can go back to the lodge and hang out."