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Tom Hopkins was a strong expert skier. But during his fourth tour of duty with the U.S. Army, he suffered a traumatic brain injury. Back home in Wisconsin with his wife, Kristina, he adapted to life in a wheelchair and dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder. They stay focused. “We don’t use the word ‘try’ in our house,” says Kristina. “It’s do or do not.”
Tom’s recovery didn’t leave much time for planning ski vacations. That’s where Wounded Warriors comes in. The organization funds programs that help servicemen and women injured in action. Together with Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra and California’s Mammoth Mountain, Wounded Warriors put on the sixth annual Operation Mountain Freedom for five days in January. A group of 38 active duty military and vets came to Mammoth with their guests to alpine and Nordic ski, snowmobile, and learn from each other.
Tom made turns on a ski cycle (which uses skis instead of wheels) with two small skis on his feet. An instructor helped him learn to ski again with the adaptive equipment. “It was wonderful to see the smile on his face,” Kristina says. “The biggest question with an injury like this is: Will I ever be the same? The answer to that question is no, you’ll never be the same. But you can still live.”
Many participants were still in the military, about to be discharged to life as Kristina and Tom know it. “The camaraderie was awesome,” says Kristina. “Learning different aspects of what works, what doesn’t, swapping wheelchair horror stories.” It was also a role reversal for the couple: Kristina was a first-time skier, terrified of heights and chairlifts, but Tom talked her through it. “I was the one who felt out of control,” she says. “It was great to know that he backed me. I see him happy, I see him satisfied. This helps him grow stronger not just physically but emotionally as well.”
Tom’s now looking to purchase a ski cycle, and the couple wants to teach their two daughters to ski. By the end of the trip, he was skiing expert runs once again. —Olivia Dwyer