Matt Bell; Ski Patroller
by Heather Burke
Matt Bell is not your average ski patrol, he is the first handicapped National Ski Patrollers in the East, one of two such skiers certified as patrollers in the country, and the only disabled Director of Patrol. Instead of the official term "disabled," Matt prefers the term "adaptive." "Everyone has to adapt, able-bodied people have to adapt too," said Bell, who works as patrol director at Black Mountain.
At the age of 19, Matt was paralyzed from the waist down in a snowmobile accident. His sled went airborne off an embankment at the edge of a potato field. He landed upright, bursting his Vertebrae T11 and 12, severing his spinal column and shattering his left ankle.
Prior to the 1999 accident, Matt had been a skier, starting at 4 in his hometown of Presque Isle.
"They didn't sugar coat my rehab," said Bell, who spent two months in the hospital, and several intervals of intense rehab at Philadelphia Shriners' Hospital.
"I had to adapt," the 24-year-old Bell said. "I worked really hard, going to the gym, swimming and kayaking, to develop my strength and balance after such a fresh injury. I got back into skiing a year later. It was nerve racking at first, but I am very stubborn and competitive."
How does a paraplegic, in a wheelchair, function as a ski patrol?
"Obviously riding the T-Bar is a problem, and I don't pull toboggans," said Bell with a smile. "I am very proficient on my sitski (a wheelchair adaptation with a single ski mount, and outrigger poles for steering), I can be first on the scene and do the initial assessment, I am fully trained in First Aid. There is a lot of paperwork too, which I can't avoid."
As ski patrol director at Black Mountain, Matt manages 20 volunteer patrollers.
"You don't even notice that Matt has a disability," said Trinket Fegola, a volunteer ski patrol at Black. "We don't treat him any differently. If anything, we kid him. He has a wonderful attitude and a lot of courage; he has obviously been through a lot. When people see him ski, they are amazed."
Others don't know quite what to think.
"People will see me in my wheelchair or in my sitski in the lift line and look at me with sympathy," Bell said. They think 'Oh look at him, isn't that nice.' Then they see me ski. There is a lot of ignorance. Some people think I am a Special Olympian, but when I ski better than they do, I think I educate them a little."
Matt is training to compete in the 2006 Paralympics in Torino, Italy. Matt has also worked at Sunday River as a Perfect Turn Coach teaching able-bodied skiers, volunteered at Maine Handicapped Skiing, and plans to become a certified professional ski instructor this year, in addition to his racing schedule in both the able-bodied and disabled circuits.
"Matt's drive and dedication to the sport is fantastic," Bennett said. "He's going to school, working as patrol director, giving motivational speeches, and training for the Olympics. He wants to give back, by showing people what can be accomplished."
Bell reflects on his life-altering accident and has even resumed snowmobiling.
"I still snowmobile, he said. "It wasn't the sled's fault. I was a 19-year-old male in a motor vehicle accident, your typical spinal cord injury statistic."
Anyone who witnessed Bell win the Sunday River Pond Skimming event in his sit ski last season knows he's not your average skier. There is nothing typical about Matt's recovery, or his plans to win a gold medal in Torino, Italy, next winter.
"There are people in similar situations who haven't done anything. But there are plenty of able-bodied people who just sit on the couch too," Bell said. "I guess it's your personality and what you want out of life."
To follow Matt's race schedule or watch his pond-skimming win, go to www.mattbell.us
l Ski Conditions: In a word: fantastic!
Heather Burke, of Kennebunk, writes ski columns for the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal.
Hi Gary- I am pleased that you liked my portrayal of Matt Bell enough to include it on your site. Thanks for checking with me - I think its great! Keep up the good word and work. I was really impressed by Matt - as I hope the article reveals.My Best, Heather Burke
Ski Journalist ESWA/NASJA
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Kennebunk, ME 04043
Permission to post by author 03.03.05