By Guest Blogger Kirk Bauer,
Executive Director of Disabled Sports USA
I lost my left leg above the knee to a grenade during an ambush in the Mekong Delta serving in the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1969.
After returning to California from Vietnam and enduring seven surgeries in six months, it was hard to imagine I could ever have a good quality of life. Fortunately, during my hospitalization at Letterman Army Medical Center, I was lucky enough to be introduced to Jim Winthers, a fellow Army veteran who served in the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. He taught me to ski with one leg, along with a handful of other Vietnam veterans who had recently become amputees.
When we first met and Jim suggested I try skiing, I thought he was crazy, but I agreed to go with him just to get out of the hospital. From the first moment he took me out on the slopes, I was hooked and I was motivated to see what other challenges I could take on.
Skiing taught me that I could have a great life.
The confidence I gained skiing and participating in other sports eventually led me to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa and helped me complete the Boston Marathon, the Bataan Memorial Death March (a 26.2 mile march in New Mexico) and one-day, 100-mile bicycle rides all using one leg. In fact, starting this week on January 16, I am attempting to reach the summit of Aconcagua, the world’s tallest mountain outside of Asia, with three disabled active duty and retired Marines from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Seeing what I was able to do physically also helped me realize professional life goals: I completed my law degree at Boston University with support from the VA vocational rehabilitation program, worked for a congressman on Capitol Hill and ultimately became the executive director of a fledgling adaptive sports organization, which would grow into Disabled Sports USA. When I took over, I became the first paid employee.
Back then, it was hard to imagine that this ragtag, all-volunteer group would become a nationwide chapter network of 115 community-based organizations serving 60,000 kids and adults with disabilities in 40 states and the District of Columbia. It was also surprising how the equipment and training would advance so far in such a relatively short time.
What we did understand at the beginning was that the confidence and health benefits gained from adaptive sports had a much larger impact on our lives than just on the slopes. Research has since confirmed the power that sports can have for people with disabilities. A Harris Interactive research study of more than 1,000 adults with disabilities showed that those participating in Disabled Sports USA adaptive sports programs had higher employment rates, were happier and enjoyed higher socialization than those not participating in adaptive sports.
Today, Disabled Sports USA offers more than 40 different sports adapted to almost any ability level through our Summerfest and SkiTour calendars. Youth programming has expanded to include opportunities for beginners who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford to participate, as well as programs for advanced athletes pursuing their Paralympic dreams. Our Warfighter Sports rehab program has served more than 8,200 of the most severely wounded warriors and their families since 2003. Our Adapt2Achieve program provides training and education to our chapters and other adaptive sports professionals, seeking to strengthen and develop the capacity of their adaptive sports organizations.
To discover the power of adaptive sports or learn how to get involved, please visit us at www.disabledsportsusa.org.
About the Guest Blogger
As a disabled Vietnam veteran and executive director of Disabled Sports USA for the past 32 years, Kirk Bauer firmly believes that the military philosophy of leadership by example is the most effective way to inspire others to dream big and achieve their goals. True to this, at age 66, he still leads an active sports life participating with wounded warriors, youth and others in skiing, biking, hiking, golf and other sports. As DSUSA’s executive director since 1982, Kirk has taken a small, all volunteer organization and made it one of the nation’s largest sports and recreation organizations for individuals with physical disabilities. For his achievements, Kirk has been awarded the Gene Autry Courage Award and selected as the 1986 “Healthy American Fitness Leader,” an honor presented yearly by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In 2008, he was awarded the “George M. Steinbrenner III Sports Leadership Award” by the U.S. Olympic Committee in recognition of his outstanding contribution to sports. In 2006, Bauer received a Presidential appointment to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports; and in the 2006, Torino Winter Paralympics and again in the 2008, Beijing Summer Paralympics, Kirk was appointed by President Bush to represent the United States. In 2013, he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition.