A new world of possibility is in store for a group of wounded and injured military personnel who arrived in Whistler on Sunday (Jan. 22) for an eight-day program designed to help them return to an active life.
The program introduces eight Canadian and eight British service personnel with a range of physical and psychological injuries to adaptive winter sports in Whistler, with several of Canada's Paralympic heroes on hand offering advice and encouragement.
"There's a lot of excitement and anticipation about trying new things, challenging the perceptions of others and also more importantly challenging their own perceptions about what they can and can't do with the injuries that they have," Maj. (Retd) Martin Colclough told The Question. "It's all about gaining more self-reliance and there's a huge confidence-building element."
Colclough, who is leading the British group, is with Battle Back, a British military initiative that uses adaptive adventure training and sports to help men and women seriously wounded in service adjust to their new physical challenges. The Canadian group, Solider On, is managed by the Canadian Forces Personnel and Family Support Services and likewise provides opportunities for ill or injured Canadian Forces personnel to get active.
Sgt. James MacIntyre, 34, is a participant in Soldier On who was injured in Afghanistan in 2010 while serving for Canada. He lost his left leg below the knee in an improvised explosive device (IED) strike, but by January 2011 was on the road to recovery. Originally from Collingwood, Ont., he is looking forward to downhill skiing, which he's done in the past. This is his first time in Whistler.
"I haven't really attempted it since I lost my leg, so it will be good to get back out there and see if I can get skiing again," he said.
In his opinion, the camaraderie developing between the Canadian and British soldiers early on in the program is excellent.
"Even though everybody's injuries are different, it's good talking to other people in a similar situation," said MacIntyre.
According to Colclough, the interaction between the two nations acts as a multiplier in terms of the benefits the program offers.
Program organizers Sian Blyth and Laurie Ball first conceived the idea of a winter multi-sport program for injured soldiers during the 2010 Winter Olympics, after Blyth arranged for a Battle Back group visiting from the U.K. to ski with the Whistler Adaptive Sports Program (WASP). Blyth is the presidenbt and founder of You Can! Event Management and is also a former director and past president of WASP. Bell was WASP's first program director.
"My heart is still in being able to persuade someone with a disability that they can do something," Blyth said. "So the guy that sat on the side of the hill saying, 'Go away, I can't do it, I'm not going to do it, I'm going home,' my ultimate is persuading him by the end of the day to go down the mountain."
Blyth and Bell originally pitched their winter program idea to Battle Back and met with instant success. Battle Back returned to Whistler in January 2011 with seven soldiers.
"In wanting to come back, they said this would be a really great opportunity to do something with Soldier On combined," said Blythe.
A year later, that opportunity has been realized. Beginning in Whistler with alpine and cross-country skiing, biathlon, a snowmobiling adventure and a dog sledding tour, the combined program concludes in Vancouver where the participants -15 servicemen and one Canadian servicewoman - will try their hands at sledge hockey and wheelchair curling.
Throughout they will have the opportunity to spend time with some of Canada's most renowned Paralympians including Whistler's Tyler Mosher, Lou Gibson, a 2010 Paralympian in para-nordic sitski, Steven Daniel, a Canadian Forces veteran and past participant of Soldier On who competed in adapted rowing at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, and Phil Chew, one of Canada's first Paralympians and head coach for the B.C. para-alpine team.
"There is obviously that secondary ambition there, that out of these men and women are potentially new Paralympians," noted Blyth. "With the experience I've got and knowing the stats, out of 16 of them there will be at least two who statistically will take it up competitively."
Of the seven who participated in the Battle Back program last year, one is now playing sledge hockey for Great Britain after trying it in the program for the first time.
Blythe and Bell plan not only to repeat the program again next year, but invite the participation of the United Sates.
"You've also got within the Commonwealth, Australia and New Zealand," Blyth said. "Both those countries have the same type of adventure therapy program for their soldiers, so that's a really big picture but it just makes perfect sense."