Editor’s Note: Fifty-two-year-old Tom Cannalonga lives in Edison, New Jersey, and has worked for many years as an ambassador for Hunter Mountain Ski Resort in upstate New York. Wheel:Life spent an afternoon talking with Tom about his passion – skiing as a quadriplegic!
I’m often asked, “What’s an ambassador?” Ski ambassadors are responsible for safety on the mountain, and customer service, and act as traffic cops on the slopes. We patrol the Belt Parkway – the only intermediate trail from the summit of Hunter Mountain – a slow ski zone for families and intermediate skiers.
Part of the job is to slow down the fast skiers like a cop slows down traffic at times.
If someone falls down or gets hurt, I position myself between the skier having difficulty and the oncoming skiers. If the person is injured, I call for the ski patrol, who are trained as first responders and have first aid skills.
I’m a C6-C7 incomplete quadriplegic. Often people are curious about how I became an ambassador with the responsibility of making sure the slope I patrol is safe, especially when they realize I have a disability.
I remember once I was looking uphill, watching oncoming skiers. Out of my peripheral vision, I saw what appeared to be a blip go over the side of the trail. Since my instincts told me this didn’t look right, I skied over to the edge of the trail where 8-10 feet of snow went into a fence. I spotted an 8-year-old boy down in the ditch, up against the fence. He was terrified. Apparently, no one else had seen him go off the edge.
When I asked if he was okay, I saw he was holding back tears. I said, “Just stay right there, and I’ll call for help.” A few moments later several ski patrollers were down in the hole helping the little boy out, and he was okay.
How Tom Navigates the Slopes
I use a sit-ski – a single ski – and have one ski under me. Several types of sit-skis include:
- a dual ski that has two skis under you;
- a bi-ski that also has two skis under you, that are somewhat wider than the dual ski; and
- a mono-ski with two outriggers (poles with tips and skis on them) that I prefer.
On the mono-ski, I can pull a string and flip the ski tips up or down. Then I can use the two poles I hold in my hands either as skis or poles. I can use these flip skis to maintain my balance while I ski on a single ski. So, I make three tracks in the snow. One is the ski right under me, and the other two tracks are from my ski poles with the skis flipped down.
Tom’s Accident Didn’t Hurt His Love of Skiing
I’ve always loved to snow ski. In junior high school, I was in the ski club. But when I was 17, I had an accident in the ocean that left me paralyzed.
I was at the seashore, partying with my friends, doing stupid stuff and drinking. My friends and I decided to go out in the surf and try to sober up before we went home. I swam out into the ocean, caught a wave and body surfed toward the beach. I was quite inebriated when I was riding that wave, and I rode the wave too close to the beach.
The wave crested, threw me into the shallow water head first and broke my neck at C6-C7. The next thing I remember I was face down in the water and blew bubbles to see which way was up. I just had exhaled, and I realized my next breath would be sea water.
I heard a voice in my head say, “That’s it Tom. You’re dead at 17.”
The next thought in my head was, “No, God. I don’t want to die.” The next thing I knew, I was face up and breathing. There’s no doubt in my mind that God saved my life, because I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t turn over. I saw one of my friend’s nephews nearby and told him, “Get some help. I can’t get up.” He got the lifeguards, they came, and then the ambulance arrived and took me to the hospital.
At the hospital, I learned I was paralyzed. The doctors told me that I’d never be able to have children or walk. They gave me a long list of other things I’d never be able to do.
All I got from the medical profession was negativity about all the things I wouldn’t be able to do.
But, I’ve learned since that everything they told me I couldn’t do, I could. I have three awesome children – my daughter, Gina, who is 22, my daughter, Nicole (21) and my daughter, Rachel (18).
My accident happened in 1981, and I was in rehab about 7 months. I could get around on my own, and I was very independent. But because of the level of my injury, my hands were affected. I have grip strength, although I have some paralysis in my fingers. I realize I’m a very fortunate quadriplegic.
Before I got hurt I was into many sports, including skateboarding and kick boxing, but I missed skiing the most. In 1984, a friend came over to my house and told me about an exciting ski trip he’d taken. I stopped him about halfway through the conversation and said, “I don’t want to hear about that, because that information depresses me about my disability.”
He told me, “There are things you can do at a ski resort. I saw a paralyzed guy on the course skiing.” I asked my friend to get me some information about how paralyzed people could ski at the ski resort.
A couple of days later, I was watching the Paralympics on TV and saw someone coming down a mountain on a mono-ski. I said to myself, “Wow! I want to do that.”
A week later my buddy came to see with a bunch of information. He said, “Go to Windham Mountain Ski Resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains, and their instructors will teach you how to ski.” Windham Mountain was about 7 miles away from Hunter Mountain where I work now.
I went to Windham Mountain and took six lessons over 2 years to learn how to ski. I could ski independently on the green trail – a beginner’s trail. I’d load myself onto the chair lift, get out and ski down the mountain. A blue square marked on the mountain was for intermediate skiers. An advanced trail is marked with a black diamond for advanced skiers, and finally a double diamond trail is for expert skiers.
By the end of my sixth lesson, I started skiing some intermediate terrain and getting pretty good. A few seasons later I joined Windham’s adaptive ski program as a volunteer and started training to get certified as a ski instructor by Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA). First, I got certified as a level one ski instructor and then an adaptive instructor. About two seasons after I got my second level ski instructor certification, which meant I could ski and teach any terrain on the mountain. I could ski double black diamond slopes, run moguls and ski jump.
I love snow skiing. Once I get out of my wheelchair and on my skis, I can go anywhere the ground is white.
The playing field is level between me and the stand-up skiers. I can do anything they can do. People will come up to me and say, “Holy moly. I can’t believe you’re skiing double diamond and skiing them fast.”
I had one fellow follow me down the slope, and he told me he couldn’t keep up with me and couldn’t believe what I could do on a sit-ski. I smiled and told him, “If you know anyone who has a disability, he or she can do what I do. I can’t walk, but I can fly.”
When I started running moguls, I received plenty of attention, because moguls were and still are an impressive run down a mountain. I wasn’t running the moguls to get attention but rather wanted to run the moguls to be the best I possibly could be in the sport of snow skiing.
I got the domain name http://www.sitski.com and started posting pictures and videos on my webpage. I also put my bio on there.
After viewing my website, people would call me and tell me they had a family member or a loved one who skied at one time but were now depressed, due to being paralyzed. “I showed them your videos and your website, and we found a place near us that taught sit-skiing. I wanted to thank you, because now my husband is skiing again with our family.” That feedback meant a lot to me.
Being able to put a smile on another person’s face with a disability made me feel good.
I remember a veteran who returned from overseas and had been in charge of personnel and equipment worth millions of dollars during a war. When he returned home paralyzed, he felt like he was a nobody.
But once someone who has a disability learns how to ski, they are free as birds, can go wherever they want to go and do what everyone else can do. With the right mindset, I began to understand that there was purpose in my disability.
I believe disability is more mental than physical. We can overcome physical challenges, if our minds are in the right mental place. I’m living proof of that.
Wait. You’re Going to Teach Me to Sit-Ski?
As a ski instructor, I teach able-bodied people to ski as well as people with disabilities. People look at me and ask, “Okay, how is this going to work?”
I tell them, “A ski will turn the same way, whether it’s under me or under you. Don’t necessarily look at me. Look at my ski, and watch what I make it do. When you see how my ski moves and cuts the snow, then I’ll teach you how to make your skis work for you. I can make my ski do everything you can make your skis do. I just use a different portion of my body to make the ski turn than you do.”
The lessons go very well for teaching everyone to ski, however I prefer to teach people with disabilities to ski.I enjoy putting smiles on people’s faces. When I have a beginning skier with a disability, I see the smiles when they start learning to ski – even when they fall down. Although many people treat people with disabilities like they’re fragile, we’re no more fragile than anyone else.
Falling is a normal part of everyone’s life. Everyone falls.
As we get older, we try to prevent falling, but we still fall. If you’re playing tennis, running around playing football or riding a bicycle, you will fall down. The people I teach to sit-ski are going to fall also. When they do, most of the time, they say, “Wow, I wiped out.” If I ask them if they’re okay, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, let’s do it again.”
Tom’s Perspective on Life from 47 Inches High
This last year was my 10th year as an ambassador for Hunter Mountain. I love to ski there and get paid to do what I love. But I have other hobbies too.
I play guitar, I build guitars, and I push my wheelchair for miles to stay fit. I also do computer-aided design (CAD) and CNC programming for the architectural and mechanical industries.
I do consultant work for companies that need CAD CAM support. I started out in computer-aided drafting. Now, I’m doing more work on the manufacturing side. I like programming machinery to cut out parts for assembly plants to make stuff. I was a high school graduate, took a few college courses and began to work. As I saw new technology developing, I took courses to learn the new technology and what industries needed.
My faith has helped me to learn to live life with my disability.
My perspective of the world is about 47 inches high, which is eye level from my chair. To communicate with me, people have to look down on me. Like other people with disabilities, I’ve been ignored by some people. When I go to see a band play, people who don’t know me see me as someone who needs help and has problems until they see me out on the dance floor dancing. Then they see me as normal.
On the ski slopes, I’m seen as an inspiration. I can do things that most people on the ski slope might not want to do. In my view, I’m not disabled. I don’t see myself as handicapped. I don’t put on glasses in the morning to help me see better, I jump in my chair to help me move better.
When I’m on a ski slope, I can’t walk, but I can fly.
To see more sit-skiing action, check out Tom Cannalonga’s YouTube channel.
About the Author: John E. Phillips
For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites.
He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.