Colonel presents Strand with Top Graduate Award (Photo by Barbara Strand)
On March 20, 2014, Mike Strand went under the surgical knife and began the eight month long recovery process after completely rupturing his ACL in a ski accident last year. 12 months later, he graduated first in his class and in the top 0.15% of all people at Air Force Basic Training.
Strand, a 25 year old originally from Roxbury, New Jersey and now living in Vermont, has been skiing since he was about seven years old. He had participated in team sports as a child but he never found the same passion that he did in skiing. Strand began competing in halfpipe events in high school. The draw to skiing came from the freedom it provided. “You can’t recreationally play baseball on your own… In skiing you can do whatever you want when you want… There are no rules to the game.” In terms of competition, Strand explained, “In team sports you win or lose as a team, in skiing you hold the sole responsibility for the outcome.”
Strand recalled one of his favorite days of powder skiing. It had been snowing all day but Strand and one of his friends were having trouble getting any runs in. “By the second run my binding ripped off my ski, we went down to fix it, which took an hour… We went back up and skied a run before my buddy’s pole broke; we went down to fix it, went back up for a few laps and a couple more things went wrong.” Normally Strand would have quit but the snow was particularly good and at the end of the day, all he could talk about was how great everything was even though it would have been a disaster under normal conditions. “During a powder day, nothing goes wrong. As long as you get one turn in, it’s a good day,” Strand said. This is a true testament to how much he loves skiing.
However, in early February 2014, just as the winter season was starting to reach its peak, Strand blew his knee and cut his ski season short.
After his knee surgery, Strand was stuck on his couch in frustration; “I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom, how could I look forward to the future?” However, his fiancé was one of the most influential people who helped him stay positive through the whole recovery process. “She was definitely a good help to have there to say, ‘look at all the others who have done it.” Strand explained that she was there for him every step of the way, especially when he decided to enlist in the Vermont Air National Guard only a month after his surgery.
According to Strand, the decision to join the Air Force probably wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t torn his ACL. In his state of limited mobility, unable to go skiing, Strand decided to attend a veteran memorial dedication in Burlington, Vermont. “I remember seeing the Air National Guard standing there and I turned to my girlfriend at the time (now fiancé) and said, ‘I’m going to join it,’” Strand recalled.
The process had its hardships. Strand explained the hardest part was getting medically cleared. The Air Force wanted signoffs from all of his surgeons, even from when he broke his neck skiing during his freshman year of college. Finally, ten months after beginning the enlistment process, Strand was shipped off for basic training and after two months, he graduated first in his class.
This experience was particularly rewarding for Strand. “What makes it the best feeling is that I have always had people tell me that my successes were because of my parents and the opportunities they gave me… When you go to basic training you get your head shaved and a pair of boots and you’re a number on a piece of paper… It doesn’t matter where you came from, rich or poor… It’s truly Joe v. John… This was something I did on my own.”
The past year has been nothing short of an adventure for Strand. He went from a completely torn ACL to top of his Air Force graduating class. Strand is also back on the slopes able to ski just as well as before. Now, his passion for the sport is stronger than ever. “No matter how many times a year you get out and no matter how aggressively you ski, even if you get out once just cruising down the groomed trails, it’s the same feeling. You see [paraplegic] skiers in sit skis; these are the people doing whatever they can to get on the snow. As long as you get on the snow, everything will work out.”