Tony Drees likes to ski directly under the chairlift. He makes sure to do so as fast as possible and ideally down a line that’s steep and bumpy so “I can top it off with a jump, or three, or four for good measure,” he says. Those on the lift above him inevitably end up cheering. And for good reason: It’s not every day you see a middle-aged, one-legged Black man ripping down a ski run. “It’s changing peoples’ lives,” says the Roaring Fork Valley resident.
And that’s entirely the point. Drees’ “Hollywooding” hijinks, as he calls them, are not about self-promotion. Neither is the one-legged backflip on skis he plans to attempt next winter. As an ambassador for and DEI Leadership Team member with Move United, a nonprofit that uses sports to promote equal access, Drees aims to inspire others, especially those with physical and mental disabilities. “I’ve been able to use my crazy story to help people navigate their personal traumas,” he says.
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About 31 years ago, then Private First Class Drees was in Saudi Arabia with the U.S. Army when his barracks were struck during the deadliest Scud missile attack of the Gulf War. More than two dozen of his fellow soldiers were killed, while Drees and about 100 others were severely injured. Drees was left with one leg broken and the other shattered. “I was blown up with a bomb. That’s how the story got started,” says the Purple Heart recipient.
Given the extent of his wounds, doctors wanted to amputate his leg. Drees wouldn’t hear it. After nine months and 58 surgeries, he jogged out of the hospital on two legs. Doctors called it a medical miracle; Drees calls it determining his own limits.
Over the next 25 years, he pursued a successful career in sales, served as an executive board member with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and eventually became the executive director of local nonprofit Veterans Passport 2 Hope. He got married and became a father. He struggled with alcohol and opioid addiction, and then got sober. All the while, he was living with an open wound in his leg that just wouldn’t heal. In 2017, it caught up with him. Severe blood and bone infections, along with a surgery gone wrong, left Drees with a choice: amputate his leg or die.
Just a couple days before the surgery, right around Drees’ 50th birthday, he was talking with his son Quincy and skiing, something the veteran had enjoyed decades ago, came up. Thanks to that conversation, what was supposed to be a yearlong recovery from having his right leg amputated at the hip took Drees just four months. “It’s because I had skiing on my mind,” he says.
In the five years since his amputation, Drees has learned a form of skiing called three-tracking, where he balances on one leg and uses two outriggers to help stabilize. It’s not easy, according to Lindsay Cagley, CEO of adaptive sports nonprofit Challenge Aspen. Drees joined the organization’s Challenge Aspen Military Opportunities (CAMO) retreat, which provides healing opportunities in the Colorado mountains for veterans with service-related injuries and disabilities, last spring. “He needs a lot of strength in that leg that he’s skiing on since it never gets a break,” she says. Not that she’s surprised he can do it. “He’s always been an athlete. He will always be an athlete. And the message he conveys is that no matter what happens in your life, you can still find a way to pursue your passion and be an athlete.”
That message takes center stage in his role as a motivational speaker and Warfighter Sports Ambassador for Move United Sports, a job that has allowed him to use his pain for a higher purpose. As a speaker, advocate, and fundraiser, Drees pushes individuals and organizations to overcome difficulties and strive toward success through his three rules for navigating life: no lies, no excuses, and never quit. “I represent the barriers,” he says, “but I also represent success over those barriers.”
These days his focus is on a particularly daunting barrier: gravity. In the coming year, he plans to complete a one-legged backflip off a 20-foot-tall ski jump. Along the way, he’ll film and share his struggles on social media to demonstrate that the road to success isn’t always pretty. “We talk about our accomplishments—that’s easy to do. Do you know how many mistakes I’ve made? Do you know what the pain associated with those mistakes has been?” he says. “This is a way for people to see your accomplishments and your pain at the same time.”
In addition to raising awareness for accessibility as an avenue to inclusion, the BackFlips4Access endeavor will fundraise for a fleet of Vehicles of Inclusionary Adventure, which will simplify the process of getting to the trailhead (or ski lift) for burgeoning adaptive athletes around the country. Most important, though, Drees hopes this effort, like all his others, motivates the people who see them.
“I don’t care who you are, how old you are, what color you are, or where you’re from, when a one-legged person goes underneath the ski lift that you’re riding on doing the bumps and jumps and is killing it, you’re going to say, ‘wow.’ That’s inspiration,” he says. “That’s all I want in this world: to influence people to be better, to take a look inside, decide what [they] want to do, and then do it.”