Minnesota man reaches new heights on ski slope

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2005

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Twenty-seven years have passed since Joe Peplinski was in an accident so ugly that it nearly killed him. A high school senior in Winona at the time, Peplinski had been riding on a motorcycle with a friend when they were struck by a car.

Peplinski's injuries were so massive that it was three weeks before doctors at St. Mary's Hospital could say with certainty that he was going to make it. Doctors also announced that Peplinski was paralyzed from just below his chest down. He was a paraplegic and would never walk again.

Peplinski blinked at the news — just barely — then countered with an inquiry so brave, strong and resolute, it seemed otherworldly.

''When the doctor told me I'd be paralyzed for life, I just asked him right away what I needed to do to become active again so I could get on with the rest of my life,'' Peplinski said. ''I've looked forward ever since, and never dwelled on the what-ifs of my life.''

The only ones the wheelchair bound Peplinski does bother with are the ones that look ahead. And he's actually not much for ''ifs,'' either. He prefers ''when's.''

When Peplinski indicated he wanted to get on with his life weeks after his near-death experience, he meant it. And he's never stopped meaning it. That's why he recently went out and bought a season's pass at Steeplechase Ski and Snowboard Area.

Peplinski is an avid golfer in the summer, consistently hitting in the lows 90s while wielding a club from a seated position from his wheelchair. But come winter, the Pine Island resident, IBM employee and father of one has developed his ultimate passion — downhill skiing.

Peplinski got started on that in February of 2003, through a demonstration day initiated by Rochester Area Disabled Athletics and Recreation (RADAR) and helped along by Golden Valley-based Courage Center. A nationally renowned center for the disabled, Courage Center sent ski instructors to Welch Village to instruct Peplinski and five other disabled prospective skiers.

Strapped into a mono ski, a piece of sit-down equipment with a single ski attached to its bottom — a device designed specifically for those without use of their legs — Peplinski was on his way. Well, at least in terms of his enthusiasm and immediate addiction to the sport.

''I fell in love with it right away,'' Peplinski said. ''To get the sensation of skiing, with the air rushing at you — it was great.''

Peplinski was also immediately on his way to realizing just how challenging this was going to be. Zooming down a 50-yard hill was done in 10-yard increments. That's because every 10 yards he'd lose his balance and wipe out. Staying upright on a mono ski — until you've had months and months of experience — is a huge challenge. Mono skiers are strapped into their seats, so they are never thrown from the device. But in the beginning they can count on all kinds of tipping, to their left or their right, ultimately plunging them into the snow.

''Falling hurts,'' said Peplinski, who is anything but a softy at a wide-shouldered and rawboned 210 pounds. ''Your shoulders take the brunt of the falls and you end up pretty bruised and sore. But your falling is what the instructors are for. They get you back up.''

Peplinski was so enthralled with his first ski experience that he immediately enrolled in an adaptive alpine ski program at Hyland Ski and Snowboard Area in Bloomington, the closest one available at the time. He went there once a week until the ski season finished, then last year bounced between a program at Hyland and one at Welch Village, with the instructors again coming from Courage Center.

It was a couple of sessions into his first year at Hyland, a trip of about 90 minutes from Rochester, that Peplinski was struck with an idea. It was to establish an adaptive ski program a whole lot closer to home. It seemed obvious to him that the best possibility there was the ski hill he got his initial lesson, at Steeplechase, just 15 miles from Rochester.

''Skiing is something I really enjoy and I think there is a definite need for this type of program in the Rochester area,'' said Peplinski, who often skis with his wife Lynne and 10-year-old daughter Tiffany. ''I want to make it possible for other people to enjoy the same thing I have, and I was thinking that it might be possible that I could be an instructor.''

After working with Loretta Verbout, executive director of RADAR, Peplinski's dream is about to become a reality. Starting the end of January, Steeplechase will be playing host to the RADAR Alpine Ski Program each Wednesday and Thursday. It will serve a variety of disabled people, including the blind, paraplegic and ambulatory disabled. The program only needs to come up with enough volunteer ski instructors to serve the 20 or so disabled people who have signed up.

It's an adaptive ski program that Peplinski strongly encourages folks to participate in. He knows how thorough the benefits of challenging himself have been, and acknowledges that integration into society is the No. 1 goal of almost all disabled citizens.

Peplinski isn't done taking on challenges, especially when it comes to skiing. His next goal is to become a ski jumper. For Peplinski, reaching that goal is only a matter of when.

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