A Healing Wind

The Power in You

The story of nature’s healing power is not just Davis’s story. For Utah native Allie Schneider, who can’t feel or move from the waist down, the outdoors has always been a family thing. She was born with spina bifida, a condition that prevents spinal fluid from circulating throughout the spinal cord. Her parents brought her to the National Ability Center to learn to ski when she was four.

“My family all skis. So every Saturday was a ski day,” she says. She learned to ski standing up, switching later to a monoski.

Schneider is a diminutive 22-year-old who wears hipster-style rectangular eyeglasses. She uses leg braces and crutches to walk. Rather than sit down, she stands and leans. She admits that skiing was not her favorite thing.

“Skiing felt like a workout,” she says, “and it scared me.”

Nonetheless, inspired by the success of Muffy Davis and others, Schneider took up horseback riding, hand-cycling, tennis, and water-skiing. Today she prefers driving the NAC’s Olympic bobsled at sixty-five miles per hour with her father, Kirk, as her brakeman. “We’re working on going to the 2014 Paralympic Games,” Schneider says. So much for fear.

Schneider is a role model for other young people and was recognized by the “Power in You” youth program founded by Utah’s first lady, Mary Kaye Huntsman. Schneider is working at the NAC as an events coordinator while taking a break from Salt Lake Community College. She says the center and its outdoor programs were pivotal in her life: “Without the NAC pushing me, I wouldn’t have the self-esteem I have.”

“For most people, the outdoors is powerful,” says the NAC’s White. “We’re bonding with Mother Earth. It’s our source of life. The power of our programs is getting people out there doing things they didn’t think they could do, or things their parents didn’t think they could do. They’re achieving control over something that’s not controllable, like gravity. They overcome these things that they didn’t think they could, and then it kind of bursts open the doors of, ‘Wow, what’s my potential now?’ That’s the power of it.”

Miracles in Nature

And it’s not just White who sees the powerful therapy in Utah’s outdoors.

“We used to think about recreation as fun, and now we also think about recreation as an extension of rehabilitation,” says Jeffrey Rosenbluth, a University of Utah physician specializing in spinal cord injury medicine. He is the driving force behind the University Rehabilitation Center’s TRAILS (Therapeutic Recreation and Independent LifeStyles) program.

The TRAILS mission, according to Rosenbluth, is to provide a continuing recreational resource for spinal cord injury patients, who are typically rehabilitated in six weeks or less and sent home.

“In that short amount of time, patients are not ready to hear about things like recreation. They’re still dealing with the tragedy,” he says.

Studies have shown that many patients end up back in the hospital a few months after discharge with complications, such as severe depression or life-threatening pressure sores, resulting from a sedentary lifestyle. Getting patients active can mitigate many of those problems. It also helps patients deal with the intense isolation that comes with many disabilities.

“Patients are hesitant, even years after, to try something they didn’t think they could do. We’re trying to get people together to take advantage of the knowledge of people who have been out there a little longer, who have experienced [these challenges],” Rosenbluth says. “And we want to bring the family back to the activities.”

The majority of spinal cord injury patients are young men who have been active in outdoor sports. 

“We’re fortunate in Utah to have close proximity to a lot of outdoor recreation, so with TRAILS, we’re able to exploit these resources to get people back outdoors.”

The equipment can be expensive. Monoskis and hand cycles can run $2,500 or more. “The goal is to get equipment designed that can be modified for anyone who wants to use it,” Rosenbluth says.

Rosenbluth hopes to provide rental equipment wherever it is needed, whether at ski resorts or community recreational outlets. The same goes for transportation. Getting to the mountains or lakes, even with Utah’s accessibility, can be challenging for many. TRAILS is working with community partners like the Utah Transit Authority.

Whether it’s Dog Lake (one of Davis’s favorite bike trips) or Lake Powell, where you might find Schneider and her family, Utah’s outdoor playground is healing. Organizations like TRAILS, the NAC, SPLORE, Wasatch Adaptive Sports, Common Ground Outdoor Adventures, Camp Kostopulos, and others are turning Utah’s geography into a therapy clinic.

Muffy Davis lives in Salt Lake City now, at the mouth of Millcreek Canyon.

“I’m here for the outdoors,” Davis says. “Even when I can’t get to the mountains, I can look at them. Just looking at them is therapeutic. I see miracles in nature. I see beauty. I see healing, peace, and renewal. When I can get away from all the chaos in life and into the mountains, skiing or kayaking or biking, that’s where my spirit is truly free and whole.”


As published in Wasatch Journal

As the body is challenged, nature empowers the soul
Racing on a downhill skiing course at fifty miles per hour, sixteen-year-old Olympic hopeful Marianna Davis missed a turn. She flipped over a fence, smacked into an aspen tree back-first, bounced off it, and hit a second one with her head. Her helmet and back shattered.
The hospital radiologist, Robert Davis, would call it the worst back injury he’d seen in someone who was still alive. The X-ray showed vertebrae so crushed that they had to be vacuumed out of her spine. For the radiologist, the name on the corner of the X-ray was more crushing: Marianna (Muffy) Davis was his daughter.
Now, eighteen years later, Muffy Davis leans forward in her wheelchair on the fourth floor of the Salt Lake City Public Library.
“This may sound strange,” she says, “but I consider my disability a blessing.”
What happened in between is as much about the healing power of nature as it is about the strength of the human spirit. For Davis, nature was her source of strength in dark times. On bad days after the accident, she would get in her hand-controlled car and drive to Galena Summit, north of Sun Valley, Idaho.
“I would look out over the Stanley Basin and watch the sunset,” recalls Davis. “That’s where I would find my peace again. That’s where I would grieve, and that’s where I would heal and get the strength to go back at it again.”
She would need that strength over the next four years, because her journey back to skiing was anything but direct.
“I originally said I wasn’t going to ski unless I could ski on two legs,” she says.
But when her legs had not responded after two years of therapy, she decided she didn’t care how; she had to get on that mountain.
“I was a skier,” she says. “That’s where my identity was.”
That realization was the easy part. What followed were years of frustration and pain. First came equipment problems: In 1990, adaptive equipment still had a long way to go. There was no adaptive equipment designed for her high-level injury.
“They basically would sit me in a foam-padded bucket mounted on a ski,” Davis says. “Then a guy would ski behind me with a tether. I had no control. Any time I got on an edge, I would fall. At the end of the first week, I looked at my mom and said, ‘I don’t know why they call this skiing.’”
Another problem: few then knew how to teach this new approach to the sport.
“We were trying to reinvent the wheel, with nobody to tell us how,” Davis says. “But I wanted to be on that mountain.” She kept trying, instinctively heading for her favorite Sun Valley ski hill, Bald Mountain.
“I would inevitably go to the top of Baldy, because that’s what I had always done, and I would be way over my skill level. And I’d end up falling and the ski patrol would have to take me down—so many times that they stopped strapping me into the toboggan. They knew when I came to the mountain that they’d eventually get a call from me,” she says.
After one too many humiliating rides in the ski patrol toboggan, she’d had enough. Abandoning her dreams of racing, she went to college. But while in California at Stanford University, she discovered an adaptive ski program at Lake Tahoe’s Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, and a dedicated instructor.
“Marc Mast went way above the call of duty,” she says of her new teacher. “He got me dialed in to the right equipment and helped me with lessons and training camps.”
At a training camp in Colorado, they finally found equipment that worked.
“Marc got me into a whole different type of monoski. Suddenly I was linking turns and skiing well; I was able to go down racecourses. Once I got hooked up with the right equipment for my disability, things started to take off.”
Her journey back to skiing eventually led her home to Baldy and Sun Valley.
“I’ll never forget that day. I drove to the mountain myself. I pulled my ski out of my truck by myself. I put my ski together, got into it, and skied all day long by myself. And that was like … yes! That was the day I knew I had come full circle. I was free again, and I was a skier and I was Muffy again and I was empowered. Because I knew I could do it by myself.”
Davis found a kindred philosophy in the programs of the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. Husband-and-wife team Meeche White and Pete Badewitz had founded the NAC in 1985 as a ski school for people with disabilities. White, a recreational therapist with a degree from Florida State University, and Badewitz, a Vietnam veteran and below-the-knee amputee she met while teaching skiing in Colorado, decided Park City would be the place. That first year, with a $5,000 grant from the Veterans Administration, they taught 45 adaptive ski lessons. In 2006, the NAC provided 24,000 lessons in everything from adaptive skiing, kayaking, river rafting, and camping to hippotherapy—the use of horseback riding for physical and emotional therapy. Park City’s NAC is considered one of the leading year-round recreation centers in the world for people with disabilities, as well as a center for training world-class Paralympic athletes. Their stated mission was—and still is—to provide opportunities to discover abilities.
With the NAC’s support, Davis returned to racing, winning silver medals in the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City; a bronze medal at the Paralympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998; a World Championship in 2000; and more than 25 World Cup medals. In between, she climbed California’s Mount Shasta on a hand-cranked machine called a SnowPod and made it to the top of Colorado’s Pikes Peak in a wheelchair. In 2005, she embarked on a world tour with her husband, Jeff Burley, a recreational therapist she met in 2000 on a National Ability Center river-rafting trip down the Colorado River. They spread the word about accessible recreation to countries like Vietnam, Ghana, South Africa, and China.

Muffy Davis shredding at the Paralympics