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Downhill skier

Despite post-polio syndrome, retired psychiatrist takes up skiing again

Created date

November 21st, 2014
man in sit-ski

If you’re looking for inspiration to get moving, try something adventurous, or conquer a goal, look no further than Crest, Erickson Living’s community in Highlands Ranch, Colo.

Dr. Severance Kelley will put any X Games freeskier’s ambition to shame. At 80, the retired psychiatrist decided to defeat post-polio syndrome, which has left him nearly paralyzed from the waist down, and take up skiing again. 

Longtime skier

“I was a rather good skier up until about 1992,” Severance says. Two years earlier, he began to notice weakness in his right leg. Diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, a condition that affects polio survivors years after recovery from an initial acute attack of the polio virus, he continued to suffer weakness and eventually gave up his beloved winter sport. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, “Some individuals experience only minor symptoms, while others develop visible muscle weakness and atrophy.” Unfortunately, Severance, who had polio as an infant, fell into the latter category and further developed weakness in both legs.

Though he has maintained upper body strength through frequent exercise, he uses a walker and electric wheelchair to get around. “I realized I needed to keep my upper body in good shape,” he says. “I work out here [at Wind Crest’s fitness center] two times a week with a trainer and once more on my own.”

In fact, the state-of-the-art fitness center is one of the reasons he moved to the Erickson Living community. He also moved to have convenient access to educational opportunities and social interaction. 

Little did he know he would also find a way to ski again. 

Rediscovered freedom

“Skiing was the only personal participation sport I enjoyed,” he says. “Once you learn how to ski rather well, there’s this sense of freedom—maybe it’s controlled freedom—about shooting down a mountain and doing it in a beautiful setting.”

After watching the Paralympic Games on TV last winter, Severance discovered the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) at Winter Park, just over an hour from Wind Crest. 

“I was quite impressed with the downhill skiing, and with my desire to want to try skiing, I called them and told them about my condition,” he says.

Their response: “Sure, we can get you on the ski slope, and you can have a ball.”

Severance also discussed his plan with his personal fitness trainer at Wind Crest. “She had a friend who’s an instructor [at NSCD], and she offered to take me with her.”

So in March, the last week of ski season, Severance voyaged to Winter Park to whiz down the slope for the first time in 22 years. 

A senior trainer fitted Severance in a sit-ski, an apparatus that allowed him to sit with his back supported and legs extended on two skis. Two short, hand-held poles had outrigger skis on the ends to help him steer. “You use the outrigger skis and lean your body left and right to steer,” he says. 

His instructor, on regular skis, was tied to Severance’s sit-ski to help with control, steering, and the learning curve. 

“It was like starting all over again,” Severance says. “I still had to learn how to ski in an entirely different position and to make much more use of my arms and upper body to assist with turning.” 

But he had fun. “It was a very satisfying experience,” he says. “It was challenging, and I got satisfaction out of handling the challenge. It was reminiscent of when I was first learning to ski. So I thought of myself as back in those days.”

By the end of three hours, Severance says, he controlled the sit-ski 50%–70% of the time. And he only intends to get better. 

“I’ll have more fun when I’ve practiced more,” he says. “My instructor suggests I have ten lessons before I go solo.” And he intends to do so this winter. “This coming season my goal is to go more often and hopefully get to the point where I can use only one ski and not need a trainer.”

He says the apparatus he used in March had two skis, while the sit-ski used in the Paralympic Games has only one.

Ski season runs November to March, and Severance plans to spend most of it on the slopes. 

Supportive neighbors,lifestyle

While he’s gotten many a compliment from his neighbors at Wind Crest, he humbly says they inspire him just as much. “When I see that people older than myself are still quite active, it gives me a lot of optimism,” he says, adding he believes its because of the lifestyle Wind Crest offers. 

Wind Crest provides a multitude of convenient on-site amenities, like the fitness center, medical center, restaurants, convenience store, classrooms and crafts room, and more than 100 resident-run activities.

Severance participates in various educational and social opportunities on campus, from the Stevens Ministry to lifelong learning classes taught by fellow residents. 

“Wind Crest gives us the freedom to make the most of our individual talents,” he says. “Wind Crest provides a wonderful opportunity for living out your senior years, and I genuinely believe that is greatly amplified by the caliber of residents who live here.”