Denver man finds new meaning in adaptive sport after freak crash

In the most excruciating moment of his life, Gary Verrazano remembered what a nursing nurse once said to him: keep talking and don’t fall asleep.

The accident occurred in June 2012. Verrazano was working at the time as the director of operations at NASCAR events, where he was responsible for directing the installation of equipment around racetracks. The track on that dark day was Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.

Verrazano’s life changed forever when the airlift he was working on malfunctioned with its hydraulic component. Seconds later, Verrazano, who now lives in Denver, found the right side of his body crushed under the weight of the huge machine.

Under the machine, he did not lose consciousness. Wake up during the entire 48 minute ordeal, enough adrenaline rushed through Verrazano’s body to feel no pain.

Verrazano, a Marine Corps veteran, was living with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from his time in the military. As he was stuck under the machine and thinking back to what had helped his wounded military comrades survive the fight, Verrazano began to chat.

“I just kept talking to paramedics,” Verrazano said. “We talked about NASCAR, talked about football.”

Verrazano doesn’t remember exactly what he was talking about at the time, when he was convinced he would be fine as long as he remained mentally engaged in the conversation. He said it was probably his favorite NFL team, the New York Giants, who had won the Super Bowl four months before. Or maybe about his favorite NASCAR driver, Jeff Gordon, and how Gordon’s parents were always so nice to Verrazano whenever he saw them at a suite level at a NASCAR event.

It was thoughts like these that helped Verrazano overcome the ordeal. It wasn’t until he arrived at the hospital seven weeks later that Verrazano realized he had lost his right arm and leg in the crash. Knowledge came after Verrazano was actually incubated for those seven weeks, surviving five different cardiac arrests during that time.

Verrazano’s life-changing injury plunged Verrazano into a deep depression. Over the next few months, Verrazano was left alone in the back room of the hospital, not engaging with anyone in adult chat. When he was given his new prosthetic leg, he refused to walk.

“I just didn’t want to do anything,” he said.

Putting aside his anger towards God, about six years ago, Verrazano gave up joining a friend of his at a church service. Verrazano said his reconnection with religion inspired him to seek out things in life he previously loved, such as skydiving. Soon after, Verrazano attached his prosthetic leg to his body for his first parachute jump after an injury. After that, Verrazano was connected with the disabled sports organization based at Lakewood Adaptive Adventures. With Adaptive Adventures, Verrazano took part in team boat races, and eventually skiing.

Last week at Keystone Resort was Verrazano’s third consecutive winter ski at the Keystone Adaptive Center All-Mountain Military Event. Verrazano was one of a dozen people with disabilities who each had their own ski facilities cooked up by employees and volunteers of the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.

One of those people was another veteran who was also injured in a post-service accident. Parker’s Tom Allind was there on a ski bike last week after suffering a spinal cord injury six years ago while riding. Allind was connected to Adaptive Adventures through his daughter Leya, who interned with the organization.

“I saw all the different activities of Adaptive Adventures and realized that he could participate too,” said Leya.

Thanks to his daughter’s foresight, Tom, who now spends the majority of his time in a wheelchair, plays for the Colorado Avalanche sledge hockey team and is able to ski again.

This week at Keystone he skied alongside Verrazano, although their setup was different. Rather than a ski bike, Verrazano raced down the hill on a tri-ski. As with most adaptive athletes, however, Verrazano’s tri-ski was designed just for him. When skiing, Verrazano does not wear his right prosthetic leg. Rather, Adaptive Adventures and BOEC staff pack their right leg with enough cushioning to both make the skiing experience comfortable for them and balance their center of gravity.

Once balanced, Verrazano uses a stabilizer in his left hand to avoid falling onto his left side. On his limbless right side, Verrazano can choose to join or remove a separate stabilizer that can act as a sort of training wheel if he’s afraid of falling.

Ed Carroll, a seasonal Summit County resident and Breckenridge Resort ski instructor, was in Keystone this week to help Verrazano, Allind and others ski. Carroll and Verrazano enjoyed discussing related interests and their similar stories on Wednesday. The conversation revolved around Carroll’s history of service in the Coast Guard, which left him with a damaged spine that resulted in periodic paralysis of his. Although he can now walk, Carroll said his body deteriorated the equivalent of 15 years in just five years.

The two also spoke about Carroll’s childhood on Connecticut beaches. In the 1950s and 1960s, during training camp for the Giants, Carroll played with the children of players on the NFL team. Verrazano enjoyed the story and the connection.

The conversation then turned to skiing and other adaptive sports. At that point, Verrazano shared with Carroll his next goal as an adaptive athlete. He said he was now in contact with a group of students from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden. Their goal is to design a dynamic mouthpiece that will allow Verrazano to shoot an arrow from an archery bow simply using his bite.

At this point, why not give it a try? After all, Verrazano follows the same mantra he shares with others.

“Think positively,” he said, “because if I can do it, you can do it.”

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