Winter Park " A conversation with Danny Pufpaff
April 1, 2008
Walls in the home of Danny Pufpaff and his wife Chris are adorned with photos of his ski racing years, race bibs, race flags and a large case full of Olympic racing medals, trophies and mementos.
Besides competing for several national titles, North American titles and very competitive international races ” with several top five finishes ” he has enjoyed successful years coaching great athletes and champions, he said, and has also headed camps for disabled young people.
In 2000, Pupaff was inducted into the National Disabled Ski Hall of Fame in Vail and is also in the abled-body National Ski Hall of Fame in Michigan.
This athlete has also backpacked all over the country, likes to go river rafting and is president of he and his wife’s landscaping business.
How long have you lived in the Valley?
Where did your passion for skiing originate?
I’m in my 50th year of skiing out of 58 years of living.
I started when I was 5 years old in western New York in a town called Colven. I was a kid ski racer until I was 16, then a full-time ski instructor in an area called Glenwood Acres.
When did you lose your leg?
At age 20, I was drafted into the Vietnam War and served in the Army. Then at around 8 o’clock at night on May 24, 1971, outside of the city of Chu Lai, Vietnam, my reconnaissance team and I were taking a sniper out.
It was very dark in thick jungle, and I tripped a land mine. It blew me up into the air, and at that time I didn’t know it, but I lost my left leg and heavily damaged my right leg. The fact they were able to get a helicopter to me right away and get me into the Chu Lai field hospital saved my life.
For three weeks I was in intensive care, then they were stabilizing me over the next three weeks. Then I was moved to the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver to rehabilitate my war injuries.
In Chu Lai, one of the doctors asked what I did prior to the army, and I told him I had been a ski instructor and was in a carpenter apprenticeship in the summertime. He said, ‘Once your leg heals, we’ll get you back on the ski slopes.’
At that time, whatever you put down as a permanent address was where they would send you to be in a hospital nearby close friends and relatives. The doctor gave me an address to use: 1400 East Colfax, Denver, Colo. To this day, I have no idea what’s there, could be one of those strip joints. But I put that down as my address and was sent to Fitzsimons Hospital.
They were quite surprised I ended up at Fitzsimons when they found out I actually lived back East. But because of skiing, that’s why I wanted to be there. A big part of Fitzsimons’ rehab was bringing wounded soldiers up to ski resorts and use skiing as rehabilitation. I started skiing again at Loveland ski area and at Winter Park, just when NSCD (the National Sports Center for the Disabled) was at its infancy of getting started.
How did you deal with being injured?
At the time, I didn’t have any expectations on how well I was going to get, or how well I was going to recover from this traumatic injury. While I was in the hospital with several other wounded amputee soldiers, I was in the rehabilitation program to get my strength back. Due to the trauma, I weighed just 80 pounds. The camaraderie of being with other vets, and the doctors and nurses at Fitzsimons made a huge difference.
I would ski at Loveland ski area with the program every three to four days. In a very quick time I adjusted to skiing on one leg with outriggers. Then I started to ski train for upcoming ski races held in Colorado and moved to Georgetown. I was also going to the newly established ski program at George Engel’s ski school, where I met Hal O’Leary who was one of the instructors. Eventually, Hal became the director of disabled skiing and started up the disabled ski school, now known as NSCD, and I was a participant. We all were in a completely new program.
In 1974, we started the first U.S. team for international competition under the direction of Hal O’Leary, who was the head coach of that team. My participation was getting other athletes on to the team and took a big role in leading the team to becoming competitive athletes. We had a team of 25 people who went to the first disabled ski Olympics in France. I was on the team from 1974 to 1987.
After retiring from the ski team, I took on a coaching position at Winter Park and under the direction of Paul Dibello, formed the first Winter Park Disabled Ski Team and started coaching that. I coached the Winter Park Disabled Ski Team, now known as the National Sports Center for the Disabled Ski Team, for 14 years.
Why did you take a break from coaching?
While skiing in 1998 I was injured. I had a horrific crash, and injured all my neck, my back… I did three cartwheels, landing three times on my head and sustained an internal concussion. It forced me to retire from coaching.
Over my career, between war and skiing, I’ve had 18 broken bones, 900 stitches, several internal adhesions, and at least suffered four or five concussions.
I really relate when I read the story about Evel Knievel.
What would have happened if you didn’t have skiing in your life?
That’s a question I’ve thought about for quite awhile. Everyone says if didn’t have skiing I wouldn’t have pain or these injuries. But skiing for me is a very integral part of my life. I don’t look at it as if what if I didn’t have skiing; I look at it as I’m always going skiing ” I’m always rehabilitating to go skiing.
” Tonya Bina can be reached at 887-3334 ext. 19603 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.