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From skis to wheels: Mike Vowels’ journey of healing, acceptance and finding his lost love

  • Written by by Connie Berg with Mike Vowels

PART ONE

The first time I saw Mike Vowels, I was driving by his beautiful property, in my car.

The word that immediately came to my mind was intense. The sight of him sitting in a wheelchair didn’t leave an impression on me, however the intensity with which he was able to care for his Duvall-area property from his wheelchair, did!

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Mike Vowels was a contributing pioneer of the sport of freestyle skiing before becoming paralyzed as a result of a skiing accident. Photo courtesy of Mike Vowels
The name, Mike the Maniac, came to mind. I had never really talked to Mike until I met him one day at Duvall Fitness.  I walked by him, as he was training, and saw that same wild intensity on his face that I had witnessed while driving by his property.  Yet, a second later, he softened as he spoke to his son Tag who was “overseeing” his dads workout.

Ultimately, Mike’s dedication to his son, his property and his physical transformation is what inspired me to write about him. Not knowing anything about Mike, I talked to the owner of Duvall Fitness, Jeff Wolf, and told him I thought I might like to write a story about Mike based on my observations.  Jeff thought Mike would be interested and introduced us. Shortly after that, I discovered there was a lot going on with Mike, both physically and emotionally.  I was witnessing an amazing journey of healing, self discovery and also a love story. It was not your typical love story. This was one between a fierce competitor, the sport he was obsessed with and the snow he once considered a friend and then his greatest enemy.

After meeting with Mike and being handed a large “booklet” of information, I struggled with writing his story.  I quickly realized that the words needed to come directly from him. His story was too personal to come from me. So, I simply asked Mike what this journey meant to him and this was his response…

“My story of coming to terms with a traumatic event in my life is one to include well-kept secrets, repressed emotions, guarded truths, personal suffering and psychological depression; the combo platter.

“It begins with a horrific skiing accident at age 29 in March of 1985. I struck a tree at high speed, bursting my vertebrae at the T-8 level; leaving me paralyzed below the sternum level.

“Reeling the tape backwards, I signed up for my first structured ski lessons at age 13 and at age 15 began teaching skiing at Alpental, continuing to do so for another 14 years. Within these timelines my developing athletic prowess led to my becoming one of the contributing pioneers of the sport of freestyle skiing and a champion competitor in the early 1970s.

“Following my accident, I turned my back to skiing altogether, and continued to do so for 28 years, never looking back. About three years ago, the well-buried trauma and its side affects caught up with me and depression set in. This profound wakeup call led me into psychotherapy and for the past two years I have been embarking on a journey of self exploration and discovery, finally coming face-to- face with the traumatic event that has influenced my life for nearly three decades.

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Mike works out regularly at Duvall Fitness. Photo by Connie Berg
“With the winter of 2012, came snowfalls in our area that boxed me in, limited my travels and restricted my mobility.  My daily challenges of being a wheelchair user become more exacerbated with snow and ice.  Driving into Seattle for work, through the challenge of a snowy and icy commute, coupled with traffic chaos, I make it within a mile of my workplace and am next forced to turn around and return home; to avoid getting stuck.  I am frustrated and I am vulnerable, because if I get stuck, I am unable to get out and walk.  My independence is seriously jeopardized and it challenges my ability to see my glass as being half full on this given day; my psyche is being worn down by my difficult snow blanketed environment.

“I’ve learned that writing (for me only) about my hardships and personal suffering is a therapeutic tool that serves me during my down periods; in response to my snowy dilemma, I wrote a poem, as follows:

Back in the day, the beautiful white snow was like the air beneath the wings of an acrobatic bird, allowing for flight and unbridled freedom.

Back in the day, the beautiful white snow was a place for me to glide and accelerate; transporting me through time and space, elevating my breathing, heart rate and life experience.

Back in the day, the beautiful white snow was my equalizer, shielding me from other life experiences deemed difficult or regretful.

Back in the day, the beautiful white snow was my great liberator.

Back in the day, the beautiful white snow was my friend.

“Today, the beautiful white snow can at times seem like a prison, but it is not; for there has always been a power bigger than me, inspiring me to fly and never remain grounded.  The beautiful white snow (a gifted tool) was and still is a beautiful white backdrop (a canvas) to my wonderful and colorful life that is an extraordinary painting in the making.

“Through this writing came an awakening, my epiphany, for the underlying thought and/or message was all about skiing. Through this heavily invested process of learning about myself, I have become open to the possibility of starting over again and returning to skiing, mending my broken heart by rekindling my lost love of sport.

“My journey comes full circle; I am scheduled to be in Sun Valley, Idaho to begin my ski lessons (mono/sit ski) on March 18.  Skiing friends from my past and a handful of friends (skiers themselves) from the Duvall area will be joining me in SV.  After five days of ski lessons, I will then be reunited on the hill for a day of skiing with about 30 of my good friends.  Through it all, age 57, I am learning that it is never too late in life to re-tool, re-think and become free from what is holding us back and preventing us from moving forward in life.”

Mike’s words are powerful, heartfelt and literally a call to action to anyone who has unresolved issues, or overwhelming fears.  One thing that resonated with me from my discussions with Mike is how grateful he is for all of the kindnesses he has received over the years.  There is a neighbor who plows snow from Mike’s driveway without being asked and another neighbor who routinely shows up unannounced and mows Mike’s lawn. In addition to these helpful neighbors, support and generosity of Jeff and Michelle Wolf, the owners of Duvall Fitness, has been unending.

And, last but not least, a gift from an amazing undisclosed angel who on Christmas Day left a very large, green gift, with wheels, in Mike’s driveway!  It was a John Deere Gator, equipped with hand controls.

This is part one of Mike’s story.  Part two will be written after his return to skiing in Sun Valley.

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