When I first met Mike Vowels, several months ago, he was admittedly broken and incomplete.
It wasn’t because of his 28-year-old skiing injury (high speed collision with a tree) which left the champion skier paralyzed and in a wheelchair. It was because of the loss of the sport he so loved, and the snow that surrounded it and made it magical.
Most people wouldn’t have noticed but if you took some time to talk to him and were able to get past his giant personality, you would notice that something was missing.
I am glad that I met Mike when I did; I’m not sure how compatible we would have been, "back in the day," as Mike refers to it, when he was at the top of his game in the world of acrobatic skiing. I think I would have maybe been put off by his hot dog skier ego, don’t get me wrong, he still has an ego but his recent return to skiing humbled him to the core and because of it, he found a strength I don’t even think he knew he had.
In the process, Mike became complete again by reconnecting with skiing, the snow and skiers in his past and present who have been forever changed by his return to the slopes.
Mike recently returned from Sun Valley where a group of 40-plus friends and supporters rallied around him as he took to the slopes after 28 years of absence. When I asked him about this tremendous journey, he said, "Before I returned to skiing, I wasn’t complete because my Skier Self who was my center, was missing."
Mike has now come full circle and is eager and ready for the next challenge as a novice mono skier, to upgrade his skiing skills to highly proficient by spring of 2014.
Conditioned and prepared, Mike is scheduled for an unprecedented high profile skiing challenge that is being planned now, as part of a documentary ski film in the making.
Mike and I recently met to discuss his trip to Sun Valley. I asked Mike what the most difficult part of his journey back to skiing was. He said, "The most difficult part was opening the door to, and exploring, the true depth of my pain and loss. Because I was fearful of the unknown cost of my probing; I could not forecast if the pain would outweigh the gain?"
I also asked Mike what he wanted to accomplish by returning to skiing. He explained, "The Sun Valley trip was intended to re-open the door to skiing and serve as a healing therapy for the great many skiers who attended, and so it did."
Mike is always upbeat and positive. I asked him to let his defenses down a bit and to share his emotional highs and lows from Sun Valley.
"The emotional high would be my leading 35-plus skiing friends down from the top of the mountain on day six. I was pushing the speed envelope of what my new-found skiing skills could support; flirting with disaster at every turn, while being fueled by the skiing group-energy that was truly palpable.
"The stress factor that wore on my emotional steadiness (an emotional low) would be the experience of not being physically in control (as a skier), while being in a place so absolutely familiar to me (a ski hill), which in my past I would have dominated. I came into it, knowing full well that I would become the poster boy for humbleness and humility; my disability leveled the playing field and did just that. I was no longer a champion, but a dutiful beginner, with the heart of a champion."
After Mike’s return from Sun Valley, he decided to revise his previously published "Snow Poem" to represent his successful recovery and healing.
"Returning to my earlier published poem," he said, "I am making some edits and I am replacing Back-in-the-Day with Today, and I am replacing the word was with the word is."
Today, the beautiful white snow is like the air beneath the wings of an acrobatic bird, allowing for flight and unbridled freedom.
Today, the beautiful white snow is a place for me to glide and accelerate; transporting me through time and space, elevating my breathing, heart rate, and life experience.
Today, the beautiful white snow is my equalizer, shielding me from other life experiences deemed difficult or regretful.
Today, the beautiful white snow is my great liberator.
Today, the beautiful white snow is my friend.
"The Sun Valley trip opened the door to a budding romance," he added, "and my flirtation with the mountain began once again; rekindling my love for the snow and skiing."
I asked Mike what he would like to say to those who have surrounded him with so much support.
"The overwhelming support moved me and I was empowered by it. The daunting physical and emotional challenge that I undertook was softened and minimized by the steadfast friendship circle that surrounded me on this Everest-sized adventure."
You can’t help but be inspired not only by Mike’s story but by how he so eloquently writes about his life. In his writings, he is so genuine you can feel his pain and elation. That is a gift in itself.
Sun Valley isn’t the end of Mike’s story but rather the beginning. The next step for Mike Vowels the Skier…
"The funds raised will pay for the continued investment in the documentary ski film. When the film is completed, it will be used to create a revenue source that serves to fund a non-profit Adaptive Skiing Program. Money generated by my showing of the ski film will be specifically earmarked to pay for teaching injured soldiers (wounded warriors) how to ski with adaptive equipment that is specific to their individual needs.
"The film trailer debut will provide a sneak peek at a Northwest Landmark high profile skiing challenge that my support team and I are planning for spring of 2014."
I wish Mike nothing but success on his next endeavors. I am grateful for his inspiration, his candidness and his willingness to be an open book for all of us to learn from.