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After his first stroke, Rick Herrmann’s world changed. After his fourth, his doctor referred him to a psychologist to assist him in pondering death. But after his seventh stroke, Herrmann relearned to ski, and began inspiring other survivors to do the same.
Herrmann first skied through adversity long before having a stroke. In ski practice as a 17-year-old, he crashed disastrously and injured his foot. That didn’t do much to stop him. “I still had a season pass so I went up skiing, I just skied on one leg,” Herrmann says. “Little did I know that 20 years later, that’d be the way I’d be skiing.”
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Strokes are tragically common: One in four people worldwide will suffer one in their lifetime. They’re also incredibly dangerous, as the event marks a sudden interruption in blood flow to part of the brain. Since blood carries oxygen and vital nutrients to brain cells, the starved cells can die quickly and leave lasting brain damage.
Strokes often affect one side of the body more than the other, making sports that require coordination and balance especially difficult. Between his first stroke, at age 29, and his last, at 33 in 1985, a life once colored by glades and ski races was halted by disability. Herrmann loved skiing though, and he knew the importance of physical rehab.
“And it’s not just ‘rehab’,” says Herrmann. “It’s rehab rehab rehab, and once you’re tired of rehabbin’, rehab some more.”
Physical activity is essential for stroke survivors in their lifelong rehabilitation process—getting moving can reduce the risk of future strokes. The American Stroke Association even suggests participating in sports, such as downhill skiing and cross-country skiing as ways to stay active.
In 1987, just two years after his seventh stroke, Herrmann began teaching adaptive skiing at Eldora Mountain. For decades, he helped people with a variety of disabilities feel the rush of carving through Colorado’s snowy slopes. But one large subset of the disabled population was surprisingly missing.
“I taught for 22 years, and I never taught another stroke survivor,” says Herrmann. Knowing that stroke is a leading cause of disability, and that active sports make excellent rehab, Herrmann was convinced that he could reach other survivors and get them on the slopes.
Herrmann started Snow Strokers of Colorado in 2011, hoping to encourage Colorado’s stroke survivors to learn (or relearn) how to ski. He swears by the sport as physical rehab, but also as a form of therapy. Simply getting fresh air and sunshine can help anyone make the most of a cold winter day.
A typical ski day for the Snow Strokers begins at Herrmann’s place around 8 a.m. From there, he shuttles the students up the mountain in his red Dodge truck to Ignite Adaptive Sports, Eldora’s adaptive ski school and his old teaching grounds. Snow Strokers’ partnership with Ignite offers 10 lessons to each organization’s students. Lessons through Ignite cost $85, but most of Herrmann’s students are on scholarship through Ignite, so they typically ski for $5–$15.
According to Carol Nickell, Ignite’s executive director, each lesson can profoundly change a life. “Depending on their disability, it may not improve their condition,” Nickell says. “But they always come away more confident.”
Thanks to Snow Strokers, around 20 stroke survivors have learned to ski in the last nine years. That’s a humble number, but it’s 20 more than in all the years of Herrmann’s teaching. And that number is growing. Through the partnership with Ignite at Eldora, Snow Strokers plans to facilitate lessons for 12 stroke survivors this coming season. (Ignite provides the equipment for the lessons.)
Several forms of adaptive ski technology exist to suit each skier’s condition. Some use sliders—a sort of walker that straddles their skis—to stay upright and cruise downhill without fear of injury. Others might ski in a seat atop one or two skis. Herrman rides on one ski while holding “outriggers,” two poles fused to short skis, but he prefers to finish runs on that single ski with no aid for balance.
Now 66 years old, Herrmann is proud to have skied at least 30 times a year since 1987. He skied 51 days last season, and more than 100 days in nine different years. He calls it the best rehab in the world.
“Once you have a stroke, it’s rehab for the rest of your life. Because you’re never going to get it all back,” Herrmann says. With a shy smile reflecting the simple truth of his sentiment, he adds, “the more you do, the more you get back.”