Former ski instructor returns to the slopes with inspirational story
Ask Pelle Sederholm what happened in the morning of May 22, 2005, and he can tell you about most of it very clearly. He was at Snowbird riding the tram up to the top of Hidden Peak, and setting off on a trip down the mountain. Skiing down the hill almost directly underneath the tram, he looked back toward one of the members of his group.
Then he woke up a month later in an intensive care unit.
He doesn’t remember anything after that look back. He has only heard the stories and felt the effects.
While the details might remain hazy, he does know a few things. He hit something and fell, tumbling three- or four-hundred feet down Silver Fox, losing consciousness and breaking his neck. The Ski Patrol stabilized and rescued him, pulling his body from from a precarious perch on the ski run, and shortly afterward, he was Life Flighted to the University of Utah Hospital.
He was diagnosed with fractures in his C6 and C7 vertebrae and faced a very real risk of major paralysis. Only when Sederholm awoke from his coma did the doctors realize the limits of his injury. He retained some feeling and use in all of his limbs and some of his digits.
"I’m an incomplete quadriplegic," said Sederholm. "I’ve had the most remarkable recovery, and I’m very lucky."
His injuries left Sederholm with limited mobility in his hands and legs, and with less feeling from his chest down. Now, 10 months into his recovery, he can walk, drive a car and do some other things that he ever expected. Saturday, he accomplished a goal he set for himself at the beginning of the year, skiing from the top to the bottom of the Quincy Express lift at Deer Valley.
A tall, handsome man with blue eyes and blond hair just beginning to gray around the temples, Sederholm is a former Deer Valley ski instructor and a longtime Park City resident, and while his injury has slowed his gait, he still appears strong. He has also gained some new insight.
"The most difficult thing," he said, "is to not mourn what you used to be, but to celebrate your accomplishments in your new skin."
Recovery a tough process
His lap on Quincy is just one more step in his road of recovery. A former professional skier and a 14-year veteran of the Deer Valley ski school, Sederholm decided he wanted to ski the hill just before the beginning of the year.
"When I was up here visiting with my clients and my friends during Christmas, I began to think about what it would be like," he explained. "Before the end of the season, I said, I’d love to ski down Ontario."
His march toward that goal was a microcosm of his whole recovery process. He first managed to put on his ski boots in January, a process complicated by the condition of the nerves in his feet. He said that because of his injury, his feet got a "pins and needles" feeling each time he donned a pair of shoes, and after months of limited motion, he simply wasn’t strong enough to stride out to the hill.
"By the time I got out there," he said, "I was pretty beat."
By February, he noted, he was able to take three or four runs on the Magic Carpet, and by mid-March, he was making his way down the trainer lifts two or three times each day. From there, he moved up to the Viking lift, and then to the Judge lift, gradually including longer runs and more trips up and down the hill.
After spending a few weeks practicing his turns and his stops, he said he was ready for Ontario, and not only did he ski the hill, but he wanted to do it more than once.
"The funny thing is, I ski a lot better than I walk," said Sederholm.
The familiar motions, he said, allow him to think about what he is doing while giving him an incentive to push himself.
"Skiing, because I’ve done it my whole life, I can explore movements that I can’t do, that are very difficult to do, in therapy," he said.
And at the same time, he loved being in the mountains and on the snow.
"Doing something that fuels my spirit, it makes sense," said Sederholm. "I felt that my walking got better and my sprit improved."
He said that for those who suffer spinal injuries, there is typically a window of between 12 months and two years when some nerves will slowly regenerate, allowing a person to restore some functionality to his or her limbs. He wants to take advantage of that time.
"I want to be the strongest and the best I possibly can," said Sederholm.
He also wants to provide some inspiration for others, acting as an example, as a role model, as he builds a new life and makes an effort to reconnect with the things he loves.
"Do I feel a sense of loss or embarrassment? No. Because I’m doing something that fuels my spirit," said Sederholm. "It’s just a wonderful lifestyle that’s meant so much to me."
"Yeah, some days suck. Some days area little tougher when you don’t have the abilities you always had," he said. But, he added, the only good thing to do is to get out and smile and try to improve.
"I want to see how well I can do at skiing," he said.
In the future, he noted, he also hopes to try bobsledding with the National Ability Center and he hopes to be able to ride his two-wheeled bike. He also said he’d like to take up golf.
Community important to recovery
He credited the Deer Valley community for helping him work through his recovery, saying that Elke Touchette, Jean Louis Montecot, the Herbst and Collins families and Gary and Jana Cole, and the whole Deer Valley ski school all provided him with support and help as he regained his strength and mobility.
"They’re just remarkable people and that’s why I’m in Park City," said Sederholm. "This is the kind of support network that helps a person recover and want to be the best he can possibly be in his own body."
Saturday, Pete Belford and Montecot, arranged for Stein Eriksen to meet him at the top of the lift to ski with him, and at the bottom of Ontario, a group of Deer Valley ski instructors, patrollers, staff members, friends and family waited to congratulate him for his accomplishment.
He said he was completely surprised, and those sorts of things make him want to try harder. He also emphasized his desire to continue to improve and give something back, possibly through the NAC, and possibly through his own efforts.
"If I have the ability to be in motivational speaking, I’d love to go," he said.
Ultimately, he said that with his story, his experiences and his improvement, he has something to offer.
"The important thing is to not mourn what you used to be and what you used to do, but to explore what you can do now," said Sederholm.
"It’s about achievement; it’s about friendship; it’s about love," he said. "That’s what creates hope."
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Daniel Thurston is Park City Library’s new Spanish services librarian.