March 13, 2008 / 12:12 AM / 11 years ago

WITNESS: Paralyzed but skiing at speed in Sweden

ARE, Sweden (Reuters) - When I told people I was headed for a week’s skiing in northern Sweden, they looked at me as if I was mad.

Peter Apps was a Reuters correspondent in Sri Lanka when he was paralysed from the shoulders down by a road accident on assignment in September 2006. He returned to work in a wheelchair nine months later, without any functional limbs, but this year went skiing in a specially modified ski cart in northern Sweden.

Since I broke my neck in a traffic accident on assignment in Sri Lanka more than a year ago, I use voice recognition software to get around the fact that none of my limbs are functional.

Now I’m back in full-time work in London, but I think many still had difficulty imagining me careering down a snowy Nordic mountainside in subzero conditions.

There aren’t many wheelchair sports on offer for people quite as physically dysfunctional as me — but perhaps bizarrely skiing has emerged as one of the leading options.

British charity the Backup Trust — which provides activity breaks for spinal injury victims — runs skiing courses both for paraplegics, who have fully working arms but no leg use, and quadriplegics like me with limited or no arm movement.

So I found myself with five other quadriplegics being lifted off an airliner into the breathless cold of a snow-covered Swedish airport so far north that even at midday the sun was low in the sky, and daylight lasted barely six hours.

The next day, cocooned in ski jacket, trousers, boots and as much warm gear as fitted, I was hoisted into a specially designed ski-cart, strapped down, and dragged up a mountain outside the resort town of Are on a ski lift — before charging down.

Those with some arm movement were able to take control of the carts themselves. The two of us without had the front skis of our carts controlled by instructors skiing behind.

It was sometimes extremely frustrating — particularly given the way most others on the course, both disabled wheelchair-users and able-bodied carers, made progress in their skiing over the week.

SAUNA, NIGHTCLUB

At times, it simply felt like I’d found something else I wasn’t able to do alongside feeding myself, washing and walking.

Some days, with flurries of snow driving across the mountainside — stinging my eyes even inside my goggles — and my body temperature sinking uncomfortably low, were rewarding only in hindsight — but certainly made a beer in front of a fire feel more deserved.

Other days, with brilliant sunshine and glistening snow across slopes and tree branches, were simply exhilarating.

It was good to spend time with other people with similar injuries. I have done pretty well but I think most were perhaps doing better in dealing with the inevitable bitterness and anger.

Access to the hotel’s wheelchair-accessible sauna — complete with cold bucket of water dumped over me on leaving the hot room — was another unexpected bonus, made possible by the efforts of the helpers from Backup.

So was skiing to an apres-ski bar and nightclub as darkness fell at 3 pm, where young Swedes still dressed in ski gear danced wildly to Europop, some still with goggles around their necks, before the club kicked out at 6 pm in time for dinner.

I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoyed being part of a small tight group doing something arduous yet rewarding, sharing a drink at the end of a hard day outside.

After only a few days, eyes were brighter and once almost silent members of the group had started to talk much more.

DIFFERENT STORIES

All the others had been injured for longer than me. Some were settled in their lifestyles, some still adapting.

Some had come through what even to me sounded pretty horrific experiences. Primary school teacher Linda Peddie, 35, was left with a bit more arm movement than me when a drunken man fell on her as she left a nightclub, breaking her neck.

A shortage of British state housing adapted for wheelchair users then meant that after nine months in hospital she was put in a nursing home for a year and a half, where many of the other residents were simply unable to speak.

Slideshow (5 Images)

It put other things in context too. Only one other person was in regular work. It is sad that what I do is seen by many as impossible.

“I hear you used to be a journalist,” one ski instructor said to me. It is an easy assumption.

I’m lucky — although it was far from just luck — in that I’m back at work and in the real world relatively fast and well. And for whatever reason, I feel a week in the snow — and perhaps also the sauna and nightclub — helped.

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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