On August 27, 2006 in Kentucky, emergency crews pulled Jim Polehinke from the wreckage of Comair Flight 5191, which crashed during takeoff. There were 49 fatalities, and copilot Polehinke was the only survivor.
The crash left Polehinke with multiple broken bones, a collapsed lung and severe bleeding, resulting in a leg amputation and a spinal cord injury. His doctors said he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
“I went into a very, very dark time in my life,” said Polehinke. “My wife Ida wanted me to take a more positive look at my condition and what I could do going forward.”
Ida suggested the two take a vacation at Aspen Snowmass for a week, where Polehinke became reacquainted with alpine skiing.
“I had skied recreationally a few times, so it was good to get back into it. And the instructors at Snowmass treated me well – they got me skiing like I was a regular guy,” Polehinke said. “To say the least, with me adapting to the sport so quickly, I was bitten by the skiing bug. Especially when I was going fast.”
Polehinke, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, is naturally competitive and athletic, which, combined with the love of speed he enjoyed as a pilot, helped him take a shine to alpine skiing.
“I was carving so fast. Skiing is such an emotional high for me, and I wanted to go faster,” Polehinke said.
With Polehinke’s newfound love of skiing, the couple moved from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. to Grand Junction, where Polehinke immersed himself in adaptive athletics, eventually becoming the president of Colorado Discover Ability, an adaptive outdoor recreation nonprofit based in Grand Junction.
His tenure as president of CDA hasn’t stopped him from regularly hitting the slopes. Since 2011, Polehinke has attended dozens of ski clinics in Telluride through the Telluride Adaptive Sports Program, realizing his full potential as an adaptive athlete. He’s training to compete in the giant slalom event in the 2018 Paralympics.
“Without a doubt, TASP has helped me get closer to that goal, says Polehinke. “I remember asking TASP’s program director Tim McGough for guides that have racing experience and that could teach me the basics and help move me to more advanced stuff,” Polehinke said. “They paired me with some instructors who competed in the World Cup and were thrilled to teach me how to carve better.
“That’s the wonderful thing about TASP – they know and understand my goals and focus on them,” he added.
Although Polehinke himself is a source of inspiration for new and developing adaptive skiers, he too draws motivation from the athletes he meets each season, and most especially from his fellow veterans.
“Whenever I go up to Telluride and ski at TASP ski clinics, the veterans that come back from overseas that are hurt more than me – let alone the legally blind vets – have the soul that inspire me. They make me want to go forward,” Polehinke said.
With the support of donors and the community, TASP provides scholarship funding to athletes like Polehinke to attend weeklong, all-expense-paid visits to Telluride for TASP ski clinics. Each year, TASP brings roughly a hundred disabled veterans to its winter and summer sports clinics.
“Jim’s story exemplifies what our organization aims to provide folks,” said TASP Executive Director Courtney Stuecheli. “He’s part of our family over here. He’s a great guy, and an inspiration to those that are trying to ski given their condition. He’s one of those guys with a competitive edge and wants to take his skiing to the next level,” she added.
TASP and similar organizations work hard to let adaptive athletes enjoy life to the fullest, said Polehinke. “I’ve found that the overarching motto with adaptive athletics organizations is, ‘What can I do for you, not what can I do for me.’”