Here, on the old Pony Express trail, in the middle of the western desert, surrounded by sagebrush, tumbleweeds and hares, the solitude is shattered by the sound of water skiers screaming and screaming as they slide down the glassy surface of a spring freshwater lake.
Looking closer at this already incongruous scene, it becomes apparent that none of the skiers have the use of their legs. Some also have limited use of their upper body. And yet, they are there: flying on water.
Is it a mirage? A science fiction movie ? A scene from beyond?
No. It’s adaptive skiing day at Last Chance Lakes.
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Growing up, Rick Lybbert discovered two loves. One: water skiing. The other: physiotherapy.
He first fell in love with water skiing when he was a young boy and his father, Dan, towed him behind the family boat on the river near their home in Northern California.
He fell in love with physical therapy when he was in college and caught a disease called dermatomyositis.
Dermatomyositis is an inflammatory condition that severely weakens the muscles. The disease sent Rick to physical therapy to see if he could recover his body. It took time, pain and effort, but he paid his dues and after four years was skiing behind the family boat again.
“I know what it’s like to be disabled,” he says.
The experience was transformative, inspiring him to choose physiotherapy as a career. He moved to Utah to attend the University of Utah, graduated, and went to work for Mountain Land Physical Therapy, where he remains to this day.
Recognizing the power of sport as therapy, coupled with his love of water skiing, one of his early career goals was to learn more about adaptive water skiing.
In 2001, he approached Meeche White, Utah’s patron saint of the disabled, at the National Ability Center in Park City, who agreed to partner with Rick and organize a day of adaptive skiing at Utah Lake. The center provided disabled skiers, adaptive equipment and know-how, while Rick and a few of his friends who lived near Saratoga Springs provided their boats.
It was a good idea with a bad location. The water was rough and choppy and the lake parking lots were not wheelchair accessible.
But it did spin the wheels in Rick’s head.
What if he could find a private lake accessible to wheelchairs and organize adapted ski days there?
Better yet, what if he could build such a place himself?
To make a very long story very short, he found a sod farm on top of a freshwater spring in the middle of nowhere in Tooele County (the nearest town, Vernon, population 349, is 5 miles), bought the farm and water rights, teamed up with one of his patients, Cody Larkin, who had blown his knee while wakeboarding and happened to be an excavator, dug two lakes – each 10 feet deep, a football field wide, and about half a mile long – and – voila! — he had his private water-skiing lake.
To pay for this inexpensive labor of love and fantasy, Rick turned the rest of the 80 acres into a small subdivision, carving up 19 lots on lakeside property and selling them as vacation homes to other ski enthusiasts. nautical.
The result is the community of Last Chance Lakes – a veritable oasis adjacent to the very road where Pony Express riders delivered mail.
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The first day of adaptive skiing was held at Last Chance Lakes in 2009. At least two per summer have been held every year since, allowing hundreds of people with various disabilities to take a spin behind the boat.
The events are co-hosted by Mountain Land Physical Therapy and Neuroworx, a Salt Lake-based nonprofit rehabilitation center sponsored by the Joseph and Kathleen Sorenson Foundation, which specializes in treating patients with paralysis.
Mountain Land PT provides food, drinks, volunteers, Rick’s house as a launch point, and most importantly, the lakes. Neuroworx provides its patients with water skiers, extra volunteers and, most importantly, Matt Hansen, a linebacker-sized therapist – dubbed “The Crane” by Rick – who transitions would-be water skiers from wheelchairs to effortless water ski sleds.
Last month, July 14, the first adaptive day of 2022 was held at Last Chance Lakes. The second event will take place on August 23.
I was there, along with other media invited to attend the July event. Two scenes stand out.
The first was the surprise of taking a left on the dusty gravel road that is the authentic Pony Express Trail and seeing a blue water lake.
The second won out: watching and listening to people waterskiing who thought they would never do it again, or never would at all.
Just a year ago, Tyson Weisenburger, 38, was in a coma. He had contracted COVID-19, which led to Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune disease, which left him in a coma for 28 days and then in a wheelchair. He struggles to walk again, but at Last Chance Lakes he took a break from rehab and went waterskiing for the first time in his life.
“What race?” he gushed while soaking in a hot tub after his lap on the lake. “I decided I wanted to do more adventurous things in my life.”
Twenty-something Courteney Custer lost the use of her legs two years ago in a quad accident. Undaunted, she embraced adaptive sports in every way she could. Earlier in the month she went mountain biking and now she could add waterskiing to the list.
“It’s so much fun to go fast and do something crazy,” she exulted after several laps on the half-mile lake.
Courteney’s best friend, Taylor Cutler, a paraplegic with energy from a nuclear power plant, tried to wear down the boat during her races.
“Oh my God, that means the world they would do this for us,” she said as Rick Lybbert moored the boat and Matt “The Crane” Hansen pulled her out of the water.
It went on like this all day at Last Chance Lakes: screams and screams shattering the loneliness in a Shangri-La in the middle of nowhere built by a man who appreciates how gliding on the water can make you feel – and knows what it’s like to be disabled.