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A Leg to Stand on

Ralph Green is more than your average "ghetto fabulous" paralympic skier.

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March 2006, Torino, Italy

The big bend at the top of Aqua Minerale is merciless. It’s the mother of all turns on the 50 mph downhill course, a proving ground that gives skiers a nanosecond to get on edge and hold steady. Too much weight on the fore end of the ski and they’re eating snow; too much weight on the aft end and they’re sitting down. Run after run, competitors from every country wipe out, never mind that they’re the best in the world. And here comes Ralph Green, from Edwards, Colorado, by way of Brooklyn, New York—and by way of a .44 caliber bullet. He’s hauling down the course in his red-white-and-blue Team USA skin-suit, going for the gold on his right leg—his only leg.

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Two of Ralph’s uncles, Bruce and Gregory, and his “step dad,” Donnie, are here representin’ on the sidelines of the Paralympics. In the powder-white crowd, they’re the gregarious black men hoisting a banner with the words RALPH GREEN/BED-STUY BROOKLYN. The top of the homemade sign is folded over, at Ralph’s request, to conceal the fact that he’s the first African-American on the U.S. Disabled Alpine Ski Team. After all, he recently took a bronze in the downhill at the U.S. Nationals, making him one of the top disabled skiers in the United States, period. Now Ralph’s one turn away from Aqua Minerale, coming out of a smooth left, outstretching his arms and pointing his ski-tip-equipped poles—his outriggers—down the hill.

Espresso complexion. Five feet, 11 inches tall, a little over 200 pounds, without so much as a nubbin for a left leg. But what a right leg. Jeezus—Ralph’s thigh must be three feet around. Spectators, non-Americans in particular, can’t get enough of Ralph. Koreans and Australians yell his name from the sidelines. Japanese nod and smile and snap pictures. “Ah, Ralph Green!” they shout. “American skier!”

Ralph hears only the voice in his head. You know this course. Look where you want your ski to go. He tries to shift himself over, over, over to the right, but the combination of speed and gravity won’t let him. Ralph slams down on the snow and slides toward the netting, a fast-moving spot in a cloud of swirling white dust.

August 2006, Avon, Colorado

Ralph Green adjusts his orange apron and swings on his forearm-height crutches through the paint department of Home Depot. The left leg of his jeans is folded neatly into his back pocket. It’s one of many adjustments he’s gotten used to making over the years, like being sure he sets his crutches on dry ground, or the chore of hoisting himself out of his Subaru. Ralph’s become a bear of a man since making the U.S. Ski Team three years ago. Keg-strong chest and stomach, shoulders that no shirt could downplay, his arms a pair of pythons grown thick from walking with crutches and thicker from lifting weights.

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The 29-year-old would make for a menacing figure if it weren’t for the stadium-wide smile that’s endeared him to friends, sponsors, and fans around the world—the same smile he flashes when matching paint chips for mustachioed contractors, picking out brushes for odd-jobbing ski bums, or advising rich women which shade of Ralph Lauren’s Sea & Sky line to buy for their million-dollar vacation homes. Two gallons of Southhampton Blue? My pleasure. Matte or gloss? I’d recommend something you can wipe down.

He punched in around 8 this morning. Two hours on, 15-minute break. Gotta stay active, keep the right leg moving; standing still on one leg is too much work. Turn the paint-can labels to face the aisle. Restock the blue tape and straighten out the buckets. Place errant tubs of Spackle back where they belong. He does two or three shifts a week, totaling 20 hours. Ralph got the Depot gig under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Job Opportunities Program; he gets paid for 40 hours, plus 401(k) and benefits, with a flexible schedule that leaves plenty of time to train and travel to races around the globe.

“The Liaison.” That’s his e-mail handle. It’s also a fitting moniker for the role he’s embraced in recent years. He’s been working to bring more inner-city kids to the slopes and expose them to a sport—and a world and a future—that would otherwise be largely out of reach. He’s not just helping at-risk youth and Home Depot customers, but also middle-class kids and corporate VPs and the wounded Iraq-war vets he teaches to ski. Ralph trades in positivity with a mayoral combination of confidence and humility that rubs off on everyone he encounters.

That smile of his, the relentlessly warm demeanor, the training, the skiing, the falling, even the bullet that cut him down on that summer night—all that’s happened to him, he believes, is his calling. To hear Ralph tell it, it’s as if the loss of an entire limb were some sort of gift, complete with an instruction manual. Speaking with the measured cadence used by jazz musicians and streetwise ministers and guys who know something the rest of us don’t, he says, “I’m blessed to be in a unique position. And with that comes responsibility.”

First, of course, there was anger. Why me? Why my leg? What future? There were things he could have done—things others would have done—like seek street justice or shake a tin can on the subway or reach for a bottle or a needle. But how about this instead? Assign meaning to it. Find fulfillment where it seems that none can be found. Make yourself useful. Help others believe. And carry some of those folks while you’re at it. Prove what your handsome, bald-headed Uncle Bruce says: That God has something in store for you, and whatever it is, it’s under way—part of a plan.

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Early ’90s, Brooklyn, New York.

A pair of black and gray Reebok Pumps scuttles across an asphalt basketball court. Left leg, right leg, left leg, right leg, and—whoosh!—ghetto liftoff. Ralph “Putt-Putt” Green has crazy hops. Fourteen years old, 5 feet 7 inches, and those legs can practically launch him over the rim. And in his mind, to much greater heights. Over the backboard and the public-housing projects he lives in. Over the historic brownstones and boarded-up junkie dens. Over Boys and Girls High School and his neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. Then right over Flatbush and Atlantic avenues and the whole gunshots-every-night, end-of-the-Reagan-Bush-years, crime’s-up-and-nothin’s-tricklin’-down borough known as Crooklyn.

Putt-Putt. They’ve been calling him that since he was a baby. See, Ralph Sr. was a rolling stone; when he wasn’t in the joint or running the streets, he’d cruise up in his throaty green Camaro that went “putt-putt-putt-putt.” Baby Ralph didn’t make the car noise or anything. He was just there in his mama’s arms, looking cute; looking, she determined, like a Putt-Putt.

At 14 years old, he’s been dunkin’ for a while at his old elementary school, PS 81. But today he’s at the Deacons, an outdoor court where big-ballers play elbow-to-chin pickup games and don’t talk smack unless they’re ready to bring it. His buddies and one of his many cousins are courtside. Putt stares down the lane, dribbles the ball, and then steps. Left, right, left, right, and—Oh, snap! He unleashes a high-flying Spud Webb reverse dunk.

On Marcus Garvey Boulevard, Putt’s the star running back of the Hurricanes, his Pop Warner team. He just scored his fourth touchdown in a single game, and he’s on his way to becoming MVP not only of the Hurricanes but also of the all-star team and the entire league. Putt can pass, too. Sophomore year he’ll be starting QB at Boys and Girls High. College scouts are already watching and sending letters. Football, and the two legs he plays on, are his best way out of the ’hood. All he’s got to do is stay healthy. Stay mobile.

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Summer vacation before Putt’s sophomore year. August 12, 1992, 10:20-something p.m. A night not long before football camp. Putt and his friend Willie knock on the door at Putt’s grandma’s house on Malcolm X Boulevard. Knock, knock, knock. Silence. Hmmm. That’s kinda weird. Whatever. Let’s go home. Near the bottom of the steps of the brownstone, two guys, maybe 16 years old, are just standing there. One of them, Putt notices, has these eyes, slanted and narrow. But Putt doesn’t think twice about it; corner kids trying to look hard are part of the scenery in Bed-Stuy. Putt and Willie walk back in the direction of the projects—the Roosevelt Houses on Lewis and Dekalb. Putt’s mom, Grace, is expecting him.

Earlier in the day, Grace had fallen asleep and had a bad dream. She couldn’t remember who or how or why, but one of the males in the family—one of her 15 siblings, maybe, or dozens of nephews or cousins—was in harm’s way. She told Putt he best get his butt home by 11. And Putt always listens to his mother. Study for your test. Eat your dinner. Don’t be runnin’ the streets. You better go check yo’self. “My mom is cool,” Putt would say. “But at the same time, she don’t play.”

Grace grew up in Bed-Stuy. She knows how easy it is for a kid in the ’hood to take a wrong turn, especially these days, with the rise of West Coast gangsta rap, and crack and AIDS and the dozens of murders a year in the 81st Precinct alone. Grace has seen plenty. She had Putt’s older sister, Monica, at 19; Ralph came a year and a half later, in June of ’77. Grace split from Ralph Sr. before Putt was six months old. She wound up with Donnie, a first-rate guy who embraced the role of step dad; they had Ralph’s little half-sister, Danielle, in 1983. Donnie and Grace encouraged Putt on the field, the court, wherever. Like everyone else, they could see talent and sportsmanship in Putt—passing, dunking, moving toward a big future.

Until that night of August 12, 1992. Putt and Willie are a block away from his grandma’s house on Malcolm X, heading home. Putt has a hunch. He looks over his left shoulder and sees that narrow-eyed guy with a gun drawn. Oh, shhhit, Putt says to himself, and starts to run—a step and a half, at most. But there’s nowhere to hide, just an empty lot to one side and a vandalized building to the other. Putt hears a shot. Then another. Willie runs for help; Putt runs for cover. Gotta get behind that parked car over there. Five, maybe six steps later and Putt falls to the gutter. It starts to rain.

The aorta splits just above the pelvis, creating the two iliac arteries, the main thoroughfares for delivering blood to the legs. In front of that junction lies the bowel, which coils and folds on itself for about 16 feet. The bullet, fired from a .44 caliber revolver, entered Putt’s lower back, tore through the left iliac, ricocheted off of his pelvis, and pinballed around his intestines.

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When the med-techs wheel him into Kings County Hospital’s trauma center, Putt has a better chance of dying than of living. At least half his blood supply—about 2.5 liters—is back in a gutter on Malcolm X Boulevard, where his sister, Monica, is frantically trying to get answers. Somebody here saw what happened, and somebody’s gonna tell me. But no one talks. Except some crazy woman behind the curtain of a nearby window, and Monica just wants her to be quiet. The old lady keeps whispering a name: “Bart.”

In the ICU, tubes deliver fluid, a ventilator pumps oxygen, machines beep and glow. Friends and family pace in the lobby. Grace never knew she had so many tears. Little Putt’s in a drug-induced coma; this makes it easier for doctors to work on a hard case. They remove a foot-and-half-long section of his intestine, but there’s a more troubling matter. The severed artery is hindering blood flow to the leg, and he’s developed a soft-tissue infection that antibiotics can’t kill. Putt’s left leg is eating itself from the bottom up. Doctors decide the only way to prevent the spread of infection is to remove the tainted tissue.

They start just above his ankle, scalpel-to-flesh, then tie off the vein, saw through the bone, and stitch him back up. Hours pass, but the infection is stubborn, necessitating another amputation, this time just below Putt’s knee. No dice. The infection persists. We hate to go above the knee, ma’am; unfortunately it’s our only option. And even then, there’s no guarantee he’ll live. Cut, tie, saw, sew. Still no luck. To prevent the infection from spreading above Putt’s limb and into his organs and killing him outright, doctors have to make another decision: disarticulation. They remove Putt’s femur from his hip socket.

The ordeal takes two and a half weeks, and, by Grace’s count, nine surgeries. Six weeks after the final amputation, doctors bring Putt out of his coma. Monica and Grace are in the room when he comes to, loopy from morphine and two months spent floating in the ether. His brain doesn’t yet know he’s missing a limb, so Putt is experiencing phantom sensations. “Why is a little boy pinching my foot?” he asks. “What happened to my leg?”

Skiing on one leg with a pair of outriggers is also called three-tracking, and it’s much more difficult than two-legged skiing. The athlete doesn’t have the luxury of four metal edges and leg-to-leg weight distribution; if he breaks at the waist or leans too far in any direction at the wrong moment, he’ll probably take a spill.

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Core strength helps with balance, of course, so Ralph’s doing crunches and swimming laps. He’s got speed and technique and courage pretty well dialed. But he needs to meld it. That’s when he’ll own his ski and be able to stay upright through the toughest parts of courses, like the big bend on the top of Aqua Minerale. His coach, Ray Watkins, believes that in 2010 Ralph could leave the Paralympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, with medals in all four disciplines—slalom, giant slalom, super G, and downhill, which he does equally well. There’s no reason, he says, that Ralph can’t be one of the best three-trackers in the world. But being the best is only part of the plan.

The plan began to unfold with a series of decisions. First, Ralph chose to abandon self-pity and move forward, and he again dared to become an athlete. After seven months, Putt left the hospital with a prosthetic leg that attached to his hip, and he joined up with a disabled track-and-field organization. While high jumping and hurling a shot put, he discovered, the fake limb compromised mobility. He ditched it, despite the difficulty and occasional humiliation that leglessness caused him. “I could have jumped higher, but I didn’t want to wear spandex with one leg,” he says. “I wore baggy pants that got caught on the pole. I was young and didn’t know myself at that point.”

Putt took home a few medals from the Special Olympics in ’94. But hopping around a track or field was nothing like reverse dunking at the Deacons or running the ball into the end zone on Marcus Garvey Boulevard. He needed more than mobility, more than just to move. Man, Ralph ached to feel the fluidity and freedom and hope he’d felt on the court and the gridiron. He needed to believe again that he could transport himself. But how was that going to happen? The answer came to him in 1994, when, as Ralph puts it, “out of the blue, a [disabled sports] program director was like, ‘You’re going skiing.’”

The outing took place at Jack Frost Mountain, a tiny resort in the Poconos. It was fun, but mostly Putt fell, and that was that. It never occurred to a 16-year-old from one of the nation’s roughest neighborhoods that he’d ever get the chance to ski again. What was he gonna do, strap a two-by-four to his foot and slide down the hill at Fort Green Park? The next year, however, Putt heard about a weeklong disabled ski clinic in Breckenridge, and he managed to get himself there.

Putt fell plenty on that trip, too, but there were moments, however brief, when something clicked. “I felt like I was gliding on a supercharged roller skate,” he recalls with a widening smile. He wasn’t hopping on one leg or swinging on crutches; he was moving—forward and fast. On his own. On one leg. Skiing.

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A program director at Breckenridge suggested Ralph do a stint at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park. In the winter of 1995–96, not long after graduating high school, Ralph packed his bags. In Winter Park, Putt was a homesick kid out of his element; he had family and a girlfriend in New York. He skied—and fell—for three months before moving back East and enrolling at Long Island University, majoring in physical therapy and social work. In his spare time he held down a job at the Jackie Robinson Center for Physical Culture, talking to kids about youth violence.

It wasn’t the first time he’d addressed the urban plague of kids shooting kids. Back when Putt got out of the hospital, Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders invited him to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress. Putt told the country’s lawmakers, “A year ago…I lay on the street bleeding to death…. When I came out of ICU, I learned that two months had passed, school had begun, and people across the country knew about me. What kept me going were thoughts of my family and football.” About his hospital stay, Putt said, “those doctors had their hands full with other patients from the city’s war zones. Most of them were gunshot victims. Many of them died.… My care at the hospital cost [taxpayers] well over $1 million.… How many million-dollar bullets will it take before someone wakes up? Aren’t these gunshots loud enough?”

Ralph was helping people and spending time with family and friends, but he was still searching for self-fulfillment. Nothing clicked. He’d sit in his room in the projects and stare at a U.S. Ski Team cap that Ray Watkins had given him in Winter Park. “I had dreams of making sweet turns,” he says. He stared at that hat for the next four years. Then, in fall of 2000, Ralph decided to move to Winter Park, $300 to his name, and try to make the U.S. Disabled Ski Team. This time there was no going home. “The day after I moved to Colorado, I started thinking about my mom talking to me growing up, always trying to keep me on the right track, before and after I lost my leg, and a lot of things started to make sense,” he says. “That’s when a huge door just opened, because I knew who I was and I was that much stronger as a person.”

He didn’t finish a single race that winter. But by 2004, effectively his fourth season of skiing, Ralph made the U.S. team, an accomplishment that takes most people twice that time. The plan was in motion.

The plan manifests itself this rainy August evening at the indoor rec center pool in Avon. A yellow and blue flipper on Ralph’s foot propels him down the lane. He just learned to swim about a year ago, floaties and all; now it’s part of a regimen prescribed by the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. They’ve got him slinging weights and crunching his abs and swimming laps. But tonight, he’s training more than just himself.

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With the same single-mindedness he uses on the hill, Ralph focuses on his 12-year-old brother, Tymel, one of two foster children Grace adopted in the mid-1990s. She thought, I almost lost my only son, and I can give these two boys a loving home and family with an older brother to look up to. Had that shot never been fired in 1992, Tymel (and Tamal, age 11) could just as well have wound up in the criminal justice system, like the kid who pulled the trigger on their brother.

Ralph glides and splashes and hops down the lane, administering brotherly tough-love, trying to get Tymel to stop flailing as if a shark is attacking. He’s only a notch gentler than Grace used to be when giving her “check yo’self” speeches—the same tone Ralph now takes with kids when he visits Bed-Stuy, where he’s a self-described “ghetto fabulous” mentor. “If I see a little kid cutting school I’ma smack him in the head. If I come home and I walk through my projects and I see little kids sittin’ out at 5 in the morning, I’ma pull’em to the side and talk to them, and I’ma make’em go upstairs. I just be real with them, and I really get into their soul. Nine times out of 10, they’re gonna about-face and go up in the house.”

Watching Ralph keep his little brother afloat, it’s easy to imagine him executing the plan wherever he goes, carrying people on his back, like when he gets recruited to teach wounded Iraq-war vets to ski at Breckenridge. Or when he drops in at Cox Communications offices in Atlanta or Omaha or New Orleans to give motivational speeches. Or when he swings by schools in Summit County or Denver and talks to kids about the value of being yourself, and the joys of skiing. Of course, when he takes the stage at tougher schools, like Brooklyn’s PS 81, he’s decidedly more Putt than he is Ralph. “A lot of these kids know someone who’s been shot. I gotta be real with them.” With any luck, he says, “When [a] kid thinks about pulling a gun out on somebody, he might think about me. And if I can alter someone’s life just in that second, then I’m doing my job…. You’re either gonna use your gift or you’re not. I have to take advantage of my story.”

Ralph, perhaps more than just about anyone, has learned the power of story. “You can ask me anything,” he says, as Tymel splashes around in the pool. Does he ever grieve about losing his leg? “The only time I was ever depressed was when the doctor told me I could leave the hospital, but then turned around and told me I couldn’t.” Does he ever get frustrated having just one leg? “What frustrates me is when people take the elevator to the second floor.” Does he find it strange or significant that in dreams he always has two legs? “It’s one of those things when it is what it is.” Ralph says all the right things, and he means them, even if he keeps the emotional truth to himself. But ask him about the specifics of what happened that night, and the big smile disappears. His deep, dark eyes look away, as if he doesn’t want you to know the whole story—as if he’s trying to protect something.

People in the ’hood called him “Bart,” just like the old lady had said the night of the shooting. His real name is Shawn Martinez; everyone in Bed-Stuy knew he pulled the trigger. He got picked up several months later, in early ’93, and pleaded guilty to numerous charges, including the attempted murder of Ralph and Willie. (Willie suffered only minor wounds.)

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At the sentencing, Uncle Bruce gave an overture, which in part went: “At one time or another I, myself, and other members of the family had a lot of hate and anger toward this individual. Right now, as I see him standing up in the courtroom handcuffed, helpless to himself…I feel more sorry for him now than I do for my nephew.… I hope you take the time [in prison]…and get yourself together, and hopefully [you] can be an asset to the society and not a menace to society. Take care of yourself, and may God rest you, brother.”

Bart’s been serving a seven- to 21-year sentence at a maximum-security facility in upstate New York, and could be released between now and 2012. He’s been in a prison riot (NYC versus Syracuse). He cut a guy’s face for trying to steal his Nikes. He’s been stabbed three times. He’s no stranger to 24-hour lockdown in the “box.”

Ralph says he never paid attention to how Bart’s life turned out. He prefers not to talk about him at all; he won’t even speak the guy’s name. He’ll say, politely, that Bart “got what he deserved,” but he’ll speak of his attacker with a similar brand of sympathy to the one Uncle Bruce used in his courtroom speech. “I’m sure people go through periods of life where they’re lost or confused or whatever he went through,” says Ralph, with characteristic diplomacy. But later, he adds, using emphasis reserved for miscreant kids in the projects: “I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want a reunion. I don’t want to be on Oprah sitting next to him. To be honest, all the positive things I’m doing—I try not to surround myself with negative energy.” He goes silent. Let’s talk about something else.

Bart, who’s traceable through court documents and reachable by mail, says that on the night of August 12, 1992, he recognized Ralph and Willie from a years-old neighborhood beef. Stupid childhood stuff. It started “when I was younger, somewhere in the early-mid 80s,” Bart writes from his prison cell. He says that he got into a fight with some kids from the Roosevelt projects, where Ralph lived. On two subsequent occasions, he continues, he tried to visit a family member at the same projects and was chased out by a group of kids; he says Ralph and Willie, who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old at the time, were part of that crowd. Bart insists that he and Ralph “had words” the night of the shooting. “I had a five-shot .44 Bulldog revolver,” he writes. “I didn’t go for it right then and there. Ralph and his friend walked away. When they was on the next block I ran up on them [and] shot them…. I feel remorseful for what I did,” he adds. “I’m happy to know that Ralph has moved on with his life. I wish him the best.”

It’s easy to dismiss the story of a convicted felon with a propensity for violent behavior. Bart, after all, shot two innocent victims in the back. But his version is worthy of consideration: Two kids with something stupid to say get in each other’s faces on a summer night in a crime-ridden and volatile neighborhood. One of them has violent tendencies and a gun and the unsound judgment to use it. If the old woman in the window witnessed the shooting (she never came forward), did she just happen to be standing there when Bart pulled the trigger? Or did she hear two boys talking smack and walk to the window to see what was happening?

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Willie did not return calls for this story, but in a police complaint report taken on August 14, 1992, two days after the shooting, his description of the perpetrator notes that he was a light-skinned black male, wearing a blue jean jacket, baseball hat, and white shirt. The description of the shooter even includes his two gold teeth, a detail that would likely have been impossible for Willie to ascertain while running from an unexpected attacker in the dark, but easier to notice in the event of a face-to-face encounter. When asked to respond to Bart’s version of the shooting, Ralph doesn’t send a reply. He’s busy training and traveling in Europe.

We all change our life stories from time to time—a bit of revisionism for the sake of convenience or image, or because it’s easier on the psyche. The woman who dumped you was boring anyway. Your husband’s drinking is under control. Bart says he and Ralph had words. Ralph says he’d never seen the guy. If Bart’s version is true—as the details suggest—then perhaps Ralph adjusted his story, ever so slightly, because he harbors shame for how he acted that night. A man so deliberate with his every word, a man known for kindness, might see a heated exchange like the one Bart alleges as a blemish on his reputation. Maybe he even feels partly to blame for what happened that night in ’92—and that he shouldn’t be judged for whatever he might have said before the shots rang out.

Aqua Minerale. Again. Some sadistic designer put the monster turn into the super G course, too, and racers are taking a beating. It’s his second race at Torino, and Ralph hopes to redeem himself after his earlier smash-up. He’s hardly thrilled with his inaugural Paralympic run, but it beats skiing too cautiously and winding up at the bottom of the list. “I tell you, man, the worst feeling is just finishing the race, when you get to the bottom and you look up at the clock,” he says. “Some people, they’re satisfied with just finishing. I’d rather fall going for it than just finish.”

He rolls from edge to edge down the course as the usual collection of adoring fans stands by with fingers crossed. But as his coach Ray Watkins says, Ralph is yet to break through, and his battle with Aqua Minerale is the proof. He falls in almost the exact same spot, disqualifying himself for the second time. Later in the week he will score so low in the giant slalom and slalom that he’ll erase those numbers from memory, along with the shooter’s name and all the negative energy, before returning to Colorado and punching in at Home Depot.

He’ll take the off-season to hit the weights and swim laps and get strong before the snow falls again. He’s got four seasons until the Paralympics in Vancouver. Maybe Ralph said it best when he spoke to Congress after the shooting. “As I lay dying on the street,” he told legislators, “I wanted God to take me. I had no hope I would see another day. As you can see, He had other plans.”

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If Ralph does omit a few details from his story because he’s worried about people seeing him for less than who he is—well, that would be the real tragedy. Ralph “Putt-Putt” Green took a bullet in the back. He fell. He got up. And he’s come farther on one leg than most could ever hope to come on two.

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