In an instant: Getting back on the slalom course after a spinal cord injury |

In an instant: Getting back on the slalom course after a spinal cord injury

Sammy Delsordo has rebounded from a spinal cord injury suffered in a 2013 skiing accident to competing in the NASTAR national ski racing championships in Snowmass late in the 2015 ski season just ended.
Courtesy photo

— Sammy Del Sordo’s unwavering passion for ski racing was a significant factor in his recovery from a damaged spinal cord and broken vertebrae in his neck, injuries he suffered in a Valentine’s Day 2013 fall at the Steamboat Ski Area. And it didn’t hurt a bit that his physical therapist is a former ski racer.

“My passion for skiing was the only motivator to get back on snow,” Del Sordo, 66, said Wednesday. “To me, it’s where I live. It’s where my heart is.”

In a remarkable comeback, Del Sordo would be back on skis, if only for a couple of mild runs off Christie Peak Express, in December 2013. And by March 2015, he realized his goal of competing in the NASTAR Finals amateur ski championships at Snowmass.

Del Sordo, who spent his career working as a lineman for an electrical company in Pennsylvania, now spends winters at his condo in Steamboat and summers in Springfield, Pa., to be close to his buddies in a sailplane club. He still pilots a glider, but only with another pilot in the back seat.

Del Sordo shared, without hesitation this week, his recollection of the day he was injured.

“I was skiing down Ted’s Ridge and cut off to get some powder,” he recalled. “When I reached Betwixt, I came out of my skis and went head first into the road.”

Del Sordo was skiing with four United Airline pilots that day, and they wisely avoided moving him after discerning that he was conscious, but couldn’t move his limbs. De Sordo’s most immediate problem was that he wasn’t breathing.

“I was awake the whole time,” he said. “I had the sensation of holding your breath, and you’ve got to get rid of carbon dioxide.”

Two Steamboat ski patrollers arrived on scene very quickly, Del Sordo said, and carefully rolled him over, at which time he resumed breathing. After being transported to Yampa Valley Medical Center, he was flown to Denver Health Medical.

“I remember landing in Denver, and the next thing I remember, I was heading down the hallway for surgery, and the surgeon told me there’s a great possibility I might not be waking up. I said a prayer and woke up six days later.”

Del Sordo, who never married, faced a long recovery. “I was in Denver Health for six weeks, and I could just about walk with a walker,” he said.

His neck had been fused with four screws, and he was encountering issues with motor skills.

“I still have balance problems and motor skill problems from traumatic brain injury,” he said.

Del Sordo opted to do the majority of his physical therapy in Steamboat with Lindsay Scott, of Kinetic Energy. Scott ski raced from her childhood in Massachusetts through high school in Colorado, and that gave her special insights into her patient’s needs and what it might take for him to achieve his goal of returning to the slopes.

As ski racers weave their way through a slalom or giant slalom course, they are seeking the fastest line through the gates, and Scott said Del Sordo is challenged by the difficulty he has turning his head from side to side since the injury. Her challenge in helping him get back on course was to come up with new exercises to retrain the coordination between his eyes and the muscles he uses to turn his head. Physical therapists refer to that process as ocular motor training.

Scott actually went skiing with her patient to better understand what he was up against.

“We definitely pushed the envelope every single appointment,” Scott said. “I had to get very creative, trying to find ways to simulate the race course and getting on edge and turning his head. We made up exercises as we went along.”

Del Sordo said because it is so difficult for him to turn his neck from side to side, he has learned to rely heavily on his peripheral vision while carving turns down a ski slope.

He credits Scott with his return to ski racing.

“There has to be somebody else in your life to help you achieve these goals,” Del Sordo said. “Lindsey was that person for me. She took the time, and without her and how she helped me move from not being able to walk, to walking two miles to therapy, to riding a bicycle,” he couldn’t have made the return to active skiing.

However, Scott said it was her patient’s internal drive that brought him to where he is two years after the accident.

“He’s an incredibly determined individual and has refused to give up on something,” she said. “Every single (appointment) he’d say ‘What’s next? I want more.’ He worked, literally, until he was physically unable to continue.”

Del Sordo’s skiing remains limited in some ways, but in others, he said, his movement on the slopes is more fluid than it is on dry land.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “My body can ski from the neck down, but it has a hard time from the neck up. If you were to see me walk and talk, you wouldn’t believe that I could ski like I do. But I’m happy. I’m in the greatest place to heal mentally and physically, so what can I say?”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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