Last year, a lady friend gave Ron Hopper a little present -- a stone with a plaque on it. The plaque said: "Never stop chasing dreams; you might just catch one."

So he went out and caught one.

Once, Hopper was a fine skier. For 14 years, he thought it was only a dream that he would ski again. Then last Christmas, his younger sister made some arrangements and Hopper found himself schussing down the mountains of his native Colorado.

He had a ball.

This month he went back to Winter Park, Colo., where national skiing championships were under way. He entered and ran in three events.

He skied with the best and he finished to the roar of an appreciative crowd, which was the sweetest music of all to him.

Now he's back in his office at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and hanging from the lamp on his desk are two medals, one silver and one gold.

The medals say that Hopper was the champion freestyle skier and silver medalist in the giant slalom at the 1980 National Handicapped Skiing Championships.

Hopper is a paraplegic. When he was 18 years old his back was broken in an automible accident. He's been in a wheelchair since, paralyzed from about the middle of the chest down.

He suffered what paraplegics call "a high break," which means he has no lower trunk control and the only power he has comes from his upper chest and shoulders. It's a debility that might stop lesser men. But Hopper is a dreamer.

"I was a jock before my accident and I'm still a jock," he said last week. Then he rattled off a few achievements: three times national wheelchair pentathlon champion; fourth-high scorer in his division as player-coach of the Santa Barbara Hot Wheels basketball team; three times a member of the U.S. wheelchair national team.

And now skiing champion.

How does a paraplegic go skiing?

Until very recently, he didn't.

Then came Pete Axelson, like Hopper a man with dreams. Axelson broke his back mountain climbing in 1974. He was a ski racer before that and he decided to be one again.

Axelson invented the Arroya, a fiberglass sled-like device with a roll bar in back and a pair of steel runners for control. He put a short pole in each hand, sat down and went roaring down the mountain.

Axelson was the ace of the Arroyas until Hoper came along last week and beat him in the freestyle. It took more than a little courage.

"The speed of that thing when it gets going is awesome," Hopper said. "Once I'm moving, there are times when a good skier can't keep up with me. It's exciting, let me tell you."

Hopper has less trunk control than Axelson, and he found the short poles useless as a result. He had spiked steel bars strapped on the first area of his mittens and, when he needed to turn, he buried the spikes in the snow and pivoted the sled. That's how he managed the slalom.

Well, sort of managed.

On his first run at the Winter Park championships, Hopper blew out and wound up disqualified in the slalom.

He came back two days later with a second-place in the giant slalom, Axelson winning.

The last event of the last day was the freestyle. The course was Engledive, an expert's slope. It was so hair-raising that all the other competitors dropped out, leaving Hopper and Axelson.

Axelson went first and made a decent run.

"I knew I had to ski good," said Hopper. "The course was fast. I mean you could fall off this hill."

"I took off like a bat out of hell and just waited till I was almost completely out of control, and then rolled the sled to slow down. I did one roll and it didn't stop me. I did another, then another, and I still was flying.

"I smoked that mountain. I guess it looked like I was in control. I know one thing. I took a lot of chances.

"I thought I'd won it but I wasn't sure. There was a lot of tradition to fight. After all, Peter was the whole reason we were there.

"But an hour later they came up and gave me the gold. And I suppose I'd have to say that was the most exciting moment of my life."

Hopper called the paper to report his victory mostly so he could pass on the word about the Arroya. He wants it brought back to the East so paraplegics here can get back on the slopes.

But ski slopes in the East are usually icy. Wouldn't that stand in the way?

"You're absolutely right," said Hopper. "But that doesn't mean it can't be done. And it will be done, one way or another."

Which is the way Ron Hopper looks at the world.