21 04 2008

Disability not slowing Bogart vet

Won gold in sports clinic

By Chris Starrs  

April 20, 2008

Online Athens – Athens Banner-Herald


At the age of 48, Mark Sikes had no idea going downhill would be so much fun.

Earlier this month, the Athens native earned a gold medal at the 22nd annual National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic held in Snowmass Village, Colo., just east of Aspen, one of the country’s most popular wintertime skiing destinations.

Sikes was one of more than 400 participants in the six-day event, which offers disabled veterans the chance to take part in skiing, rock climbing, snowmobiling and a host of other activities under the watchful eye of some 600 volunteers.

“It was my first time at the clinic, and I won a gold medal because I was considered the fastest first-timer in downhill skiing,” said Sikes. “I was going about 45-50 mph, and I can tell you that sitting in a bucket going down a hill that fast can be kind of scary.”

Not only did the clinic represent Sikes’ first visit to Colorado, but it was, in his words, “The first time I’d ever seen skis.”

“I had no training whatsoever,” said the divorced father of two and grandfather of one. “It was just ‘get in and go.’ I did have a couple of ski instructors looking after me, and they taught me how to use the equipment, which is basically controlling the ski by leaning your body.”

A 1977 graduate of Cedar Shoals High School, Sikes was able to get in two days of practice before his gold-medal performance, and he pointed out that every disabled vet earns a medal for his participation. He’s also not sure if he plans a return performance in 2009.

“I don’t know about going back,” he chuckled. “I’m a Georgia boy, and I don’t think I like that much cold weather. One night we were there, 20 inches of snow fell, but I guess that’s what happens when you’re 8,000 feet up on the side of a mountain.”

After graduating from high school, Sikes enlisted in the U.S. Army and once he completed basic training was assigned to serve in Korea as a military police officer. When he returned stateside, he was sent to Fort George G. Meade, Md., and was discharged in 1980.

During his tour of duty in Korea, the Bogart resident suffered a service-related back injury but soon recovered. It wasn’t until some two decades later that he began to experience back troubles and learned that his spine had ruptured as a result of a degenerative disc disease that was caused by his injury in Korea. For the past four years, Sikes has been unable to walk and now uses a wheelchair to get around.

He had owned and operated a pest-control business in the Athens area for 15 years but had to give up the company due to his disability, and he now visits the Veterans Affairs hospital in Atlanta twice a week for exercise and therapy sessions. At the VA, he learned about the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

“Last summer, I went to the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Wheelchair Games, where I won a gold medal,” he said. “I was told about the Winter Sports Clinic, and since I’d never been to Colorado, I thought this would be a good time to try it out. I signed up but found out there were no other veterans from Atlanta going, so I went with a group from Augusta. It was all new to me, but it was a lot of fun.”

Sikes added that part of his visit to Colorado included a day trip to Aspen, which offered him ample opportunity to take photos of “the beautiful scenery” and build a rapport with fellow handicapped vets.

“The games were great, but it wasn’t just the games,” he said. “The thing I most enjoyed was the camaraderie with the other veterans. It was unbelievable. There were people from all over the country, and they get together each year in Colorado. It was great to see them and to see how they’re coming along.”

Between visits to the VA in Atlanta, Sikes is taking Bible study and theology classes at the Apalachee Baptist Association in Monroe and said he may one day answer the call to be a preacher.

“I’d be interested in going out on the mission field if I could find somebody to be my legs,” he said.

It would be easy for Sikes to sit inside his home and grouse about the difficult hand he’s been dealt, but he, like many of his colleagues, prefers to look on the sunny side.

“Life goes on,” he said. “You can’t give up. You’ve just got to come up with new ways to satisfy yourself. But the main thing is, you can’t stop – you’ve always got to keep going.”

And if it means going downhill on skis at 50 mph, so be it.




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