Going upward on a downhill slope: How skiing helped David Szekely
He says skiing helped him overcome physical limitations
March 7, 2017
David Szekely's life became much more difficult right before he turned 7 years old.
While riding his bike in his hometown of Weston, Massachusetts, he was hit by a car.
David was rushed to the hospital, where his family was told he had a broken femur and a possible concussion. But it was his abdominal injuries that changed his life's course.
"They performed abdominal surgery five days after the accident," said Elizabeth Joy Szekely, David's mother. "It didn't go so well. He went into cardiac arrest and his brain became deprived of oxygen."
In a coma, David was transferred to a hospital in Boston. The staff there didn't have much faith he would pull through. Then, something short of a miracle happened.
"When they disconnected him from the life support, he went on breathing," Elizabeth said. "After that, we took it day by day."
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On the path to a slow recovery, David was unable to walk, or see, when his family was given permission to take him home.
"He rode in the back of the station wagon on a bean bag, because he was totally rigid," Elizabeth said.
David's antidote to life's struggles
Although it took some time and a lot of care from his family, David, now 44, is more active than most people. In fact, he now thinks of himself as an athlete. From spelunking in the Cheddar Gorge caves in England — his mother's native country — to boxing at a gym near his house in Miami, David doesn't go one day without exercise.
His secret, he said, is the balance and strength he found through skiing, which is something he comes to Park City to do every year.
"Skiing is all about weight transfer and balance," David said. "When you can transfer your weight on the hill, since it's pulling you down, it keeps you upright. My balance improved drastically as I was skiing."
David hit the slopes once he was able to walk again, which doctors said wouldn't happen.
"First, he learned to crawl," Elizabeth said. "Then, I put his feet on each of my feet and I would walk him."
David's first ski venture after his accident was at Nashoba Valley, the ski area near his childhood home.
"We met a ski instructor who took David under his wing and taught him how to ski," Elizabeth said. "Rather than teaching David the traditional way, he just worked with what David could do."
The feeling David experienced when strapped into a pair of skis and sliding down a mountain was a revelation, his mother said.
"David could move again much more freely, because the hill did all the work," she said.
It gave him more than movement
Not only did skiing give David the freedom to move with ease. It also helped his self-esteem.
Because of the challenges he faced after surgery, David had trouble fitting in with kids at school, who could see his physical limitations. But when he was bundled in snow clothes and swooshing down slopes, he looked like any other skier.
"It gave me a sense that I was becoming more and more like the other children and I wasn't thought of as different," David said. "It helped me adapt more into mainstream society."
"Once you're in your ski clothes, it hides a lot of deficits," Elizabeth added. "When you have on your ski coat, helmet and skis, you look like everybody else. You don't look different. You fit right in."
Discovering Park City
David was skiing the East Coast's steeper mountains when he was a teenager. And even though he was an experienced skier by the time he came to Park City, David had more to learn, he said.
He was living in Santa Barbara, California, when he decided to try the West's mountains. It was 1999, and David made his way to Park City, where he met another ski instructor who became his mentor.
"He was from somewhere in Europe," David said. "He taught me how to use my big toe, which really taught me how to shift my weight from side to side."
David fell in love with Park City. He found the town's residents friendly and accommodating, and wanted to share his discovery with his mother, who visited the following winter.
Since then, Elizabeth and David — thanks to a trust fund set up on David's behalf — have been able to spend every winter here.
Still setting goals
David has set and made several goals since he was hit by a car. He couldn't walk in 1979. Now he skis black diamond slopes. Teachers told him he would not make it through the public education system. He has since graduated from college. And though his vision is impaired, it has recovered enough so he can read all his favorite novels.
While David has accomplished almost everything he was told he could never do, he's not ready to settle. He has more hurdles to overcome, such as skiing 3 million vertical feet while he is in Park City this winter.
He said he's pretty sure he's going to make the goal after more than 60 days of skiing, since he religiously hits the slopes by 8:30 a.m. almost every day.
"Some days I ski from 9 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon without stopping," he said.
David added he's already conquered one of his goals, which was to ski 60,000 vertical feet in one day.
"The lift attendants held the lift open that day for an extra five to ten minutes so I could get two more runs," he said.
Elizabeth said she couldn't be more proud of her son, who is proof that the willpower to overcome can go a long way.
"All of these accomplishments are from somebody who was never supposed to blink," she said.