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Soldier Turned Paralympian Finds He’s ‘Free’ On the Slopes

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DENVER (CBS4) – For some people, skiing can be hard and gravity doesn’t always cooperate. But for one skier, hauling down the mountain at break-neck speeds is a form of therapy.

Joel Hunt is one of those people who finds solace in the sport.

Hunt joined the military in 1998 because he was afraid: Afraid of never getting out of the small Indiana town where he grew up, afraid of never leaving home, afraid of never seeing the world.

“I don’t remember much of my tours,” said Hunt. “I know my ERB and stuff says three tours.”

Hunt was sent to Iraq, and there he saw more than he wanted to see.

“I don’t think it was just one event, I think that it was multiple events, multiple explosions,” said Hunt.

Hunt came home physically wounded and emotionally broken.

“I felt myself confined to a wheelchair because no matter how many steps I took I was having dizzy spells or blackouts,” said Hunt.

What Hunt found was that skiing helped him recuperate. He found comfort in the sport and it allowed him to unload the baggage he brought home from the Middle East.

“It made me feel free as a bird, to the point where when you are disabled, you sometimes look upon other people to have to do stuff, and with skiing you are able to do it on your own,” said Hunt. “Nobody’s there to help you. You are there as your own man and the hill doesn’t discriminate. If you are not a good skier, then guess what, you’re not a good skier and nobody cares if you are disabled.”

Hunt concentrated on mastering the slalom course. He was perhaps racing from memories from Iraq, but also enjoying his new mission on the mountain.

His story could end here; a soldier who finds a new passion and moves forward with his life but Hunt, on the other hand, has turned his passion into a profession.

“I’ve already accomplished the goal that I wanted to, making it to Russia for my mom,” said Hunt.

Behind the soldier and skier, was a devoted family. Hunt didn’t do it all on his own.

“They rehabilitated me to the point where I was starting to get out of my chair,” said Hunt.

His mother Judy died last year and won’t be able to see him compete.

“When my mother died, I found out that she had set aside cash for her and my dad to go,” said Hunt. “I didn’t realize how important it was for her.”

This month, Joel heads to Sochi for the Paralympics where he will head down the mountain with more than just a medal in mind.

On the back of his helmet is a painting of the Purple Heart he won when he came home from the Middle East.

“I was presented my Purple Heart by Forgotten Heroes, and I truly believe the ones that truly deserve Purple Hearts are the ones that didn’t make it back,” said Hunt.

His mission now is to honor those men and women, as well as the injured soldiers still struggling to find their own way down the mountain.

“It just tells me that my battle buddies are watching and they’ve got my back,” said Hunt. “I’m fighting for my country in a different way, and that’s the biggest thing.”

Joel will be competing this Thursday in Sochi where will be the first ever skier with a traumatic brain injury to participate in the Paralympics.

-Written for cbsdenver.com by Conor McCue

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