Applause filled the Alaska House chambers.
Seated in her wheelchair near the back of the room, 51-year-old Susan Macaulay was recognized by state Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau, who requested a guest introduction prior to the start of a floor session.
After nearly 30 years of having a disability, thanks to the Disabled Winter Sports Clinic, the Air Force veteran still takes to the ski slopes.
“It’s really important to realize that just because you’re using a wheelchair, doesn’t mean you’re a nobody. You’re not dead,” Macaulay said.
A longtime Juneau resident, Macaulay has skied at the DVWSC in Colorado 14 of the last 15 years. She’s headed there again this month for her 15th visit.
“Start saving a little money now,” Macaulay advised, saying every disabled veteran in Alaska should check out the clinic in Snowmass Village, Colorado.
Downhill skiing is the primary sport at the clinic.
“I tried skiing standing up the first year and that was really sad, I hated it,” Macaulay said.
Now, she skis on a sit-ski with an instructor behind her holding tethers that guide her down the hill.
The clinic has been incredibly helpful in her own journey, she said. It all started when a national disabilities organization donated money for Macaulay to attend years ago.
“That really meant a lot because with the brain injury that I have, I didn’t think people did anything for me,” she said in an interview with the Empire after the floor session March 8. “I didn’t think I deserved anything and so this was real mental, self-esteem builder.”
Macaulay was stationed for just eight months on an Air Force base in Germany as an avionics navigation systems specialist when she was in a car accident and suffered critical brain damage. She used a walker for the next 17 or 18 years of her life and has since transitioned to using a wheelchair.
“I relearned life,” she said. “I relearned how to eat, how to talk, how to add — everything.”
Today, Macaulay volunteers at Riverbend Elementary School, checking in books at the library and assisting in a fourth-grade class.
She said she hopes to see more disabled Alaskans traveling to the sports clinic to participate. Only two people from Alaska are going this year.
“What I’m hoping to do today is inform other veterans returning from Iraq or Iran, just any disabled veteran … that they have a chance to go to the National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic next year,” Macaulay said.
Parish said in an interview that he wanted to highlight the clinic in the Alaska Legislature.
“Like Susan, a lot of veterans have made great sacrifices for our country and it’s profoundly heartening for me to see one of our local veterans benefiting from a national program,” Parish said. “Susan is not only someone to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude, but she’s someone who’s shown a way for veterans to lead more fulfilling lives in the face of disabilities.”
Jamie Bursell, a good friend of Macaulay who went with her to the Alaska State Capitol, introduced her to Parish after the two happened to share a table at February’s Women of Distinction dinner. Bursell is also going with Macaulay to the Colorado clinic this year. It’ll be Bursell’s second time going.
“I can hardly wait,” she said.
Hundreds of people across the country attend the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic each year. This year’s event is March 26-31. Ski instruction, equipment, lift tickets and meals are free for those with qualifying disabilities. Most participants also recruit business sponsors to help pay for airfare and lodging.
Applications are due months in advance, but Susan said after your first winter sports clinic, you’ll hardly be able to wait to go again.
“I look forward to the next year when I get home every year in April,” Macaulay said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the subject’s name Susan Macauley. Her name is spelled Susan Macaulay. This article has been updated to reflect the change. The Empire regrets the error.
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.