Finding an enjoyable and fulfilling job can improve your happiness and transform the way you see the world. After all, it was Confucius who said: "Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life." However, tracking down a career that compliments and moulds to your life can be a difficult task.
A Passion for Athletics
When I was ten, I used to wager with my sister that I would be playing in the National Football League when I came of age. Growing up, the only limitation to making my dream a reality was my imagination and it was my imagination would help me turn my love of sports into a life-long career.
When I attended university on an athletics scholarship, I quickly realised that, no matter how much I just wanted to focus on sports, I’d need a solid grasp of academics if I wanted to incorporate sport into my professional life.
The One Decision That Changed My Life
Having little to no idea of what I wanted to do in life, my initial decision to attend university was more of a lifestyle choice than a pathway to a successful career. I chose Fort Lewis College, a liberal arts college in Durango, Colorado, to pursue this lifestyle. When I needed to relax, I would visit the nearby Purgatory Resort and its world-class ski fields.
My experience at university was truly amazing. My schedule not only allowed me to go skiing four days a week, it also gave me the opportunity to learn mountain biking and golf. After several years of fun and hard work, I somehow managed to graduate with a degree in Business Administration.
After finishing university, I headed back to Denver to try and secure my first real job. Over the following years, I was able to get several different jobs in the insurance industry. During this time, I slowly realised that the conventional corporate America grind was not for me.
During the summer of 1988, my friends and I took a break from work and went on the road trip of a life time; a trip that would change my life forever. Whilst visiting Lake Powell, Southern Utah, I took a dive from a cliff that caused me to break my 9th thoracic vertebra. Leaving me paralysed from the mid-abdomen down, I later learned that the botched dive has taken away my ability to walk. At this point, my whole world was shattered and my mind went into overdrive. Instead of worrying about my survival, I kept asking myself, ‘What sports can I do now?’.
Despite researching adapted sports in rehab, I struggle to accept the idea that I could only play sports for partially paralysed individuals. In order to make up for my dissatisfaction, I threw myself into finding a job and attempted to move on with my life, bidding farewell to the prospect of ever playing sports again.
After several interviews, I landed a great job evaluating securities at a trust company in Denver. Although I loved the job and the people I worked with, I still felt discontented and incomplete. This all changed when I received a call from a volunteer at the National Sports Centre for the Disabled (NSCD), asking me if I would be interested in learning to ski again.
At first, I was hesitant. It had only been 8 months since my accident and I still had metal rods lodged in my back. My doctor strongly advised against it, warning me to wait at least a year before I attempted any activities that might worsen my back injury. After hearing this, I played it safe and decided to wait until next season to enrol in the program. The next night, I tossed and turned, with the possibility of being able to ski again heavy on my mind. The following morning, I changed my mind and enrolled in the program. A week later, I was setting off to ski again.
Achieving the Impossible
Given my condition, the only way I could get back on the slopes was by using a mono-ski. A mono-ski is a single ski mounted on a frame which consists of a seat and a shock absorber. Outriggers are used to manoeuvre the ski, load it into the chair lift and push it on the flat. It was like learning to walk again; I had lost all of my core strength and that made the process incredibly difficult. Mono-skiing requires strength, balance and persistence; things, I confess, I was in short supply of at the time. While I considered giving up and resigning myself to life in the corporate world, I knew I would never forgive myself if I didn’t follow through with this opportunity. Besides, what would my family and friends think of me if I gave up? Would they think I’m a quitter? The thought of disappointing my loved ones, and more importantly, myself, was the one thing that pushed me to work harder every single day until, finally, I could ski independently again.
While the occasional weekend skiing gave me a temporary fix, it was not enough. I began to feel more and more trapped and confined within the four walls of my tiny office. This is changed when I finally faced the question that was plaguing me: “Is this my destiny?” At that moment, I knew that working inside a cramped office and staring at a computer all day was not going to make me happy. Shortly after this cathartic moment, I filed my letter of resignation, packed my bags and moved to the mountains.
With only one thought in mind, I trekked to the mountains and never looked back. Using only my savings and the support of the firm I just resigned from, I was able to enrol in a five-day weekly ski racing training program! I honed my skills, and even managed to enjoy a few years of success. But I still wasn’t satisfied. While I could ski, I still felt bound to my mono-ski – what I really wanted was to free ski.
Occasionally, I would challenge myself by skiing with my able-bodied mates. They would push me to the brink of my abilities, taking me on terrain that people with my disability wouldn’t dream of skiing on. They were incredibly patient, understanding and helpful, even as I struggled and struggled to keep up with them. But the struggle to compete with my friends only made me try harder and train longer. Eventually, my efforts were rewarded when, one day, I glided down to the bottom of the run before noticing my mates were still only halfway down. How incredible is that! I never would have guessed that, despite my disability, I could ski again, let alone ski better than I ever had before. The feeling was euphoric; I felt free, unburdened and totally independent again.
After this achievement, I had a burning desire to help other people share in this incredible feeling. Almost as if by fate, a ski coach position opened up at the NSCD for the following season. The job meant that I would be running the ‘sit ski’ program and coordinating around 300 volunteers; a challenging and incredibly rewarding position. I landed the job and absolutely loved it! Working part time, I was able to spend a lot of time pursuing my own interests, getting involved in activities like scuba diving, water skiing, off-season ranging, hand cycling and off-road wheelchair racing.
It was through all of my extra-curricular activities that I finally came to the realisation that I was happy. I was content with my job and loved all the down time I got. Unfortunately, given the nature of my work, I was only able to work in the winter and considering the low pay, I struggled to support myself when I wasn’t working. For this reason, one of my mates and I decided to start up a new progressive sports organisation, promoting the healing benefits of sport to people of all abilities and disabilities.
My Dream Became a Reality: ‘Adaptive Adventures’
Adaptive Adventures is a non-profit organisation aims to expand the adaptive sports industry in the United States. One of the stated goals of the organization is to attract people from across the country, arm them with essential information on adaptive sports and create a learning, sharing and social environment in which they can learn and develop their skills in their chosen field. The summer months involved boat trips, water skiing and multi-day bike riding. Our programs also included cycling, climbing, water and snow skiing, kayaking, scuba diving and sailing. After our first few programs were successful, we also set up a program designed specifically for youths, and founded another program for the rehabilitation of injured soldiers.
Eighteen years later, Adaptive Adventures is now helping thousands of people with physical disabilities and injuries. Through my own pursuit of adventure and sport, I have witnessed first-hand the life-changing impact that outdoor activities can have on people who face the unnerving prospect of never being able to enjoy sports again.
It took me years before I realised I could turn my love and passion for sport into a rewarding and fulfilling career. Although my disability has created additional challenges in my life, I wouldn’t change a single thing about my journey. If I hadn’t faced and surmounted these challenges, I would never be as happy as I am today. Through my company, I have met so many inspiring and motivated people who have encouraged me, supported me and inspired me. Finally, I feel as though I am where I truly belong. Not only have I found a career that I love, I also found myself!
About the Author
My name is Matt Feeney and I am the cofounder of Adaptive Adventures. In 1988, I suffered a spinal cord injury that left me paralysed from the mid-abdomen down. First and foremost, I am a survivor. Despite my disability, I have become a certified water and snow ski instructor, a decorated hand cyclist and a two-time off-road downhill champion. My dream was, and still is, to inspire others like me to embrace their disability and to enjoy the benefits of outdoor sports for mental and physical wellbeing. One of my proudest moments was being named Colorado’s Adaptive Athletes of the Year.