It was just before Thanksgiving. Ira Edwards was clearing cross country ski trails after a big storm when a leaning tree fell and crushed him. A month in intensive care was followed by four months in a Denver rehab facility.
“I started life all over again.”
That was 2010. Ira had been a nordic ski athlete for Rossignol Skis, a marathon runner and a salmon biologist turned wildlife enforcement officer, based in Alaska.
”I was still me, I just couldn't do everything I used to do.Ira EdwardsAlaskan Paraplegic Living Large
The first days after the accident felt bleak. “Nobody told me life could be fun again. There was not a single doctor or medical professional that said, hey, you can do this, you can do that.”
Ira was not just re-learning everyday activities, he was also re-learning how to manage his type 1 diabetes. His wife left. His insurance was limited to work-related expenses.
Ira turned to the internet, where he found the inspiration he was looking for. There were other athletes in the hospital. One was a snowmobile rider from Alaska who had been injured on the same day. They pushed and encouraged each other.
“I was still me, I just couldn’t do everything I used to do.”
Ira’s first piece of adaptive equipment was a hand cycle.
“As we all know in the world of adaptive equipment, it is not the same price as regular equipment. So I sold 12 bicycles, sold a bunch of my ski gear and got a grant from the High Fives Foundation. And that was how I was able to get a bike and start exercising again.”
Ira’s friends turned up every day for a bike ride. The exercise made a big difference, but so did the friendship.
“I had a lot of friends that made sure I had someone to talk to and spend time hanging out with every single day. So that helped a lot.”
Teton Gravity Research, a ski film company, helped fundraise for Ira to get an adaptive alpine ski.
“I spent a lot time in my life in the ski industry, helping people – not thinking that I was going to get hurt and need help myself, but the whole pay-it-forward concept, it’s truly there.”
Today, Ira is back alpine skiing but also nordic skiing. And he practices subsistence living in Alaska. He catches fish and seafood with his 21-foot boat and grows vegetables in his garden, where he’s built raised gardens and garden pots to make weeding easier.
Ira is not a small man. He’s 195cm and 110kgs. “You would not want to arm wrestle me.”
One of Ira’s most helpful adaptive devices is what he calls his “strap-on butt”.
“It’s my fake ass. It’s basically like a climbing harness with a protector. I spend a lot of time not in my wheelchair. Any time I’m not in my wheelchair, I’m wearing that pad. Because my atrophy is extreme – you can touch my bones right through my skin. That allows me to get around and not worry about my skin as much.”
Ira is now giving back. A long-time fan of facial hair, he started selling beard products to fund a program he’s called Team Gimp Squad, which last year purchased 12 sit skis for the Anchorage School District, which has 45,000 students and 100 kids who use wheelchairs.
“So high school and middle school aged kids can get outside in the winter, which they couldn’t’ do previously.”
The things that still frustrate him are bowel and bladder issues.
”This last year, I rode a two wheel bike again. I'm learning new stuff every year.Ira EdwardsAlaskan Paraplegic Living Large
“Like a lot of people I’ve talked to, I’d be happy never to walk again if I didn’t have those issues. They’re a constant frustration. But last year I found a product called Peristeen and my bowel accidents have significantly reduced.”
Ira has successfully re-learned life – after coming from what he calls “the crazy athlete crowd”.
“I can no longer keep up with them anymore. But I’m back to being an athlete and compared to all my normal, non-superhuman friends, they all think I still do way too much. So it’s turning into a happy medium. I’ve accepted that I can’t do as many things as I used to. I need more rest than I used to. Life is draining, pushing a wheelchair around, and all the health issues you’ve got to deal with. But I still do a lot of fun things. And every year I’m able to accomplish more. I mean, this last year, I rode a two-wheeled bike again. I’m still learning new stuff every year.”
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