Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ross Ruddell.
“Can I give you a hand?” I watch a 10-time world champion struggle to unload his mono-ski form the back of his car.
“I’m fine, I got this,” he replies.
Everything I was taught when I was raised is conflicting with my job to photograph this man. I want to help him, to make this challenge easier. He is independent, but he is struggling. His breath is frozen as he pulls out a worn duffle bag filled with clothes and gear. His black wheelchair rolls away from him while he props himself up against the car. I put my camera down and roll it back to him.
“Thanks,” he says.
The airport in New Hampshire, it’s 3:30 a.m. and it’s pitch black. His green Subaru wagon, loaded with his skis, gear and crutches sits in a handicapped stall in the long-term parking lot. The juxtaposition of watching a world champion unload his own car makes me pause. He is leaving to go to Colorado to train for the Paralympics World Cup.
I spent two days with Chris Devlin-Young, a former Coast Guard aviator, whose plane crashed on the remote island, Attu, Alaska. He is now a member of the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team and travels the world representing his country. Doing it well, by the way, having won 156 races as of last summer.
Devlin-Young’s house is situated near the bottom of Canon Mountain in New Hampshire. Giant logs span across the length of the house to create its walls. The trusses of the roof come together at a snow-shedding steep angle. He has stairs everywhere, and I am wondering to myself how he gets up them, knowing he uses a wheelchair. I walk up to the door, knock once on the claw, and he opens the door, standing. The way he was paralyzed still leaves him with partial quadriceps control. He can use crutches and stand on his own. I introduce myself and we sit down by the living room fireplace.
“I am the only one in charge of the fire in this house,” he chuckles. “Ever since the accident, its kind of a touchy subject.”
I ask him if we can go outside and talk.
He is sitting in his wheelchair, and I am standing beside him in the backyard of his house. It’s beautiful, early fall, but the morning is cold and frost has formed on the grass. Everything has that crisp look that reminds us that winter is coming. He looks off in the distance, through the trees that line his property. He exhales and his breath freezes.
We talk about growing up in Southern California. He told me about wanting to be a surfer, but failing miserably in the cold coastal waters on Northern California. He told me that he had a happy childhood, running everywhere, being active, riding the ferry and having free reign over his small town. He tells me about wanting to join the military, he even flirted with a few other services, but settled on the Coast Guard. “ I wanted to be like my Dad,” he said. “My parents couldn’t sign the papers fast enough,” he laughs. He joined the Coast Guard at age 17. Two years later, in service to his country, his life would never be the same.
“I remember every single detail about that day,” he says, his tone a little more somber. “It happened that fast,” his hands clapping hard and interrupting the stillness of the morning. “In that moment, my life changed.”
He was a radioman on a C-130 flight mission in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The plane crashed into a mountain, killing several of those aboard. His back broke on impact. The injury became permanent when he pulled fellow crewmembers from the burning wreckage.
Belly-crawling out of the plane, he used his arms to pull himself and his friend out. “I was trying to drag my friend out and I thought he was holding onto my legs,” he said. “But because I was paralyzed, I couldn’t feel that he wasn’t there.”
Chris’ legs gave out and he was forced to watch as his best friend, trapped inside the cockpit, almost died in the flames, emerging with 70 percent of his body severely burned. A day later Devlin-Young came to in a hospital, where a doctor informed him that the spinal injury was irreversible.
“I was so angry, there was a lot I was upset about,” he said. “For a long time I felt that my ability to serve the country I love was taken from me.”
A few years later, while at a Palo Alto rehab center, this self-described “bitter and angry young man” was asked to be one of five participants at the first National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. Chris says that experience changed his life for the better; he found a new focus, new confidence and determination to not just survive, but also thrive in the challenges, and to help others do the same.
“My disability doesn’t define me, its a part of me, but its isn’t the whole me,” Chris said. “I want others to realize that all the hardship that comes from this, you can rise above it.”
Today, he continues to train and compete on slopes around the world. But, when he’s not skiing, he focuses on giving back to others by removing barriers for disabled athletes and making snow sports more accessible for the disabled.
“My goal is to help those with disabilities to realize their potential,” he said. “ Adaptive sports pushed me to be healthy, mentally and physically, and to stay in front of the disability.”
Devlin-Young took two years off to create and run the New England Adaptive Ski Team at Loon Mountain, N.H, with his wife, Donna, a former elite ski racer. The couple quickly filled their ranks and coached three athletes to overall U.S. National Championships as well as ascension to the U.S. Adaptive Ski Team where they have won multiple World, Paralympic and World Cup medals.
“Skiing is a gravity-powered sport so it’s the great equalizer. In my wheelchair, I encounter dozens of obstacles every day. But on the snow, I just glide over it. There is so much freedom to be found. Learn a sport, get outside and play. The troubles of the disability will fade into the background. They aren’t going to disappear, but they will fade.”
The two of us make our way back up to the house, and Chris asks if he can show me his “machine,” which I know is his mono-ski. Of course I say yes, excited to see the device that has given new life to an old shipmate.
He pulls the device out from the back of his car. It looks like a space ship. Shock absorbers and black plastic cover a high tensile steel frame mounted onto a regular ski binding.
“Our rules say we have to use the same skis as everyone else, paralyzed or not,” he says.
He shows me how he balances the ski on his wheelchair. He does a no-handed wheelie and smiles.
At the airport the following morning, we unload all the stuff he needs for his training in Colorado.
We get all his gear stowed and make our way to the handicap ramp that bypasses the stairs to the airport terminal.
“This is the hardest part of my trip,” he says, not only rolling his wheelchair but also pushing the cart with the other hand. “Confidence is half the battle,” he told me yesterday.
Chris boards his plane and sets off in search of snow and another gold medal.
Before I leave, he writes down his email for me. When I get back to the car, I look at the crumpled piece of paper.
His email address is “cdy2014gold.”