Amy Donaldson: Adaptive athletics gives veteran new opportunities

Published: Monday, Jan. 7 2013 8:10 a.m. MST

Alfredo Delossantos approaches the finish line on two broken skis in the 2013 U.S. Cross Country Sitski Adaptive Championships at Soldier Hollow in Midway on Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013. He crashed early in the race but was determined to finish, even on broken skis.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SOLDIER HOLLOW —

The woman leaned into the finish chute and shouted to Alfredo De Los Santos just as he crossed the finish line.

"You're my hero, Freddy!"

Shivering from the cold and unable to raise his arms without assistance, the 43-year-old former Army sergeant managed to smile slightly as he hollered back.

"Oh, you don't want a hero like me!"

But most of the few remaining volunteers, coaches and other athletes couldn't help but openly express their admiration for the perseverance De Los Santos exhibited when he finished a 15-kilometer sit ski race on two broken skis Saturday afternoon.

He finished his race 45 minutes after the second-to-last skier crossed the finish line.

The father of two crashed into a ditch on the first loop of the five-loop course at Soldier Hollow. After John Farra, high performance director for U.S. Paralympic Nordic Skiing, pulled him from the ditch, Farra said he wondered how he'd get De Los Santos back to the team's staging area.

That's when the athlete told the coach he was good to ski. Farra just didn't realize that meant finishing the race.

De Los Santos said he never considered quitting. He suffered during those four laps with skis that splintered and dragged worse with every lap. Temperatures hovered around 20 degrees during the race.

But the man who joined the Army in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been through worse. He survived being hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade) on Oct. 20, 2008, eight months after being deployed to Iraq. As they pulled him from the medical truck, he was shot twice.

"I passed out," he recalled. "The next time I woke up, I was in Germany. A month after I was in Washington, D.C."

In addition to losing his entire right leg, he suffered a traumatic brain injury.

"At the beginning I was having a hard time being around people," he said. "I had a lot of anger. I was really (mad) because I was not the same. Through sport, I was able to realize that I am the same. And life is what you make it."

He struggled with questions, with fear and with the radical changes to his life.

"Am I going to be productive? Am I going to be a good provider for my family?" he said. "I had a lot of concerns."

In the rehabilitation process, De Los Santos said therapists exposed him to "every sport out there."

And despite the fact that he wasn't much of a sportsman before he lost his leg, he tried them all. He fell in love with hand cycling and hopes to represent the country he loves in the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games.

Last winter, he decided to try sit ski, a sport that requires him to propel himself around a mountainous ski course with only his upper body strength.

It is, he said, brutally demanding and intensely rewarding. He loves it so much, he started to think about the 2014 Paralympic Games in Russia.

"I like the pain," he said. "I like the sweat. I like to be around these guys. I get inspired when I see these guys."

He takes a moment to glance around the course at the athletes competing against him.

It is hard to succumb to self-pity when he shares the track with people dealing with situations that are every bit as challenging as his own. It's hard to mourn what you've lost when you hear what others no longer have.

"You can't complain," he said, a seriousness taking over him.

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