Ten years after a skiing accident devastated her life, Kelly Brush is back on the slopes, surfing, riding her bike and changing other’s lives.
Eleven years ago Kelly Brush was starting her sophomore year and doing dry land training with the Middlebury Ski Team. Ten years ago, Brush could no longer use her legs. That September 2006, about 25 members of the Middlebury Ski Team started a ride around Addison County in her honor. In the decade since, it has cascaded into one of the greatest charity rides in the state and highlighted what one determined woman can do for others.
Growing up in Charlotte, Vt., Kelly Brush started racing at age 7, following a strong family tradition. Her mother, Mary Seaton Brush had skied at Burke and University of Vermont. She was a World Cup ski racer and competed in the 1976 Innsbruck Olympics. Her dad, Charlie Brush, skied for Middlebury and later coached skiing and football there. Her older sister Lindsay was on the Middlebury ski team. Kelly had just started dating another Middlebury ski racer, Zeke Davisson. Though she had also captained the Green Mountain Valley School soccer and lacrosse teams, skiing was Kelly’s life and passion.
Many Vermonters know the story that follows: That February, Kelly Brush’s life drastically changed. During the 2006 Williams College Winter Carnival at Jiminy Peak, Mass., Brush caught an edge, spun backwards and catapulted into a lift stanchion and then off the trail. “Her helmet shattered and was blown off and she was barely conscious, her breathing was irregular,” remembers Zeke Davisson, who rushed to the scene. She had a collapsed lung, four broken ribs, a broken vertebrae in her back and spinal fracture.
“I don’t remember anything until I woke up from surgery in the ICU,” Brush recalls. “I had a tube down my throat and everyone was there. ‘You hurt your back,” was all my dad said, and we’re going to figure it out.’”
Brush’s spinal cord injury left her paralyzed from the waist down, condemning her to a life in a wheelchair. But in 10 years, that’s not stopped her from cycling (on a hand cycle), playing, tennis, surfing (“it’s more like boogie-boarding,” she admits), sailing, or skiing. In fact, this past spring she skied Tuckerman’s Ravine for the first time.
“I honestly don’t think my life is very different than if I hadn’t had my accident,” she says, from her home in Maine. “I would not have started the foundation but everything else, I just do. I’m working as a pediatric nurse practitioner. I still ski and bike, Zeke and I have a house and a dog.”
That foundation though, and the money raised through the Kelly Brush Ride has changed the lives of hundreds of others with spinal cord injuries. “That year our ski coach, Forest Carey, told us each to go out and raise $1,000 and we’d do a century ride for Kelly in the fall,” Zeke remembers. “There were about 25 of us who rode 100 miles.” Instead of raising $25,000, the team raised $60,000. That initial money went to Kelly to help pay for a hand cycle and sit-ski. Those cost about $12,000 and the funds were more than enough. “There’s still money in that fund, “ Zeke says.
A year later, Kelly and her family set up the Kelly Brush Foundation and the Kelly Brush Ride drew hundreds of cyclists raised more than $100,000. In the years since, the ride has regularly drawn 600 to 700 cyclists, including about two dozen hand cyclists who ride anywhere from 25 to 100 miles on the quiet roads that roll through the farmland of Addison County. Among them: Kelly Brush and Chris Waddell, another Middlebury College ski racer who suffered a spinal cord injury while freeskiing at the Middlebury Snow Bowl in the 1980s. Waddell has since gone on to win medals in both skiing and cycling in the Paralympics and, in 2011, became the first paraplegic to climb Kilimanjaro.
After the accident, Brush spent a week in the ICU and then two months at the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver, Co. After six weeks, she tried a hand cycle. “That was the first time she felt the wind in her hair and she could feel like an athlete again.”
In the years since, Brush and her foundation have been working to restore that feeling to others. In 2012 she and Zeke Davisson were married and this past year Davisson left his job as an attorney to run the foundation.
So far, the foundation has helped purchase more than 300 pieces of adaptive ski equipment. The recipients, who apply for a grant, are people like Kevin McDonald, a 41-year-old who fell from a deck while taking down decorations. This past winter, using a sit-ski, McDonald was able to ski with his son again at Killington for the first time since the accident. They include Greg Durso, a bank analyst from Long Island who had a sledding accident. Durso used his handcyle to compete in Ironman Maryland. And they include Amber Clark.
While Brush was in the Craig rehab hospital, her roommate was Amber Clark. “It was strange, she had the exact same injury as I did, at the exact same time and we were about the same age, but that was where the similarities ended,” Brush recalls. Clark, who was working at Subway at the time, had had an accident while tubing. After they left the hospital, the two stayed friends on Facebook but lost touch.
“Then one day Amber reached out to me on Facebook,” Brush says. “She had gained weight and was out of shape. She now had two sons and told me the hardest part about her accident was not being able to ride with them.” Clark applied, and earned a grant that bought her a hand cycle. By riding it she has lost 45 pounds. She said to me, ‘you know, I was always using my injury as an excuse. Now I see it doesn’t have to be.’”
And for Brush, it hasn’t. “I’ve never once hear Kelly say, ‘oh why me,’ or really dwell on it,” says Davisson. “My sister and Zeke have been my biggest allies,” she says. “They just push me and say, hey were going to find a way to do this – whether it’s surfing or skiing Tuckerman’s.”
That attitude may be something Kelly was born with. In 2013 her parents were snowcat skiing in Chatter Creek, B.C., when an avalanche buried her father. Charlie Brush was blue and not breathing when he was finally dug out. He recovered and was back cat skiing the next day.
“That was pretty surreal,” Kelly Brush recalls. “It’s another reminder that life is pretty precious. And that sometimes we get second chances.”
What You Can Do
You can support the 2015 Kelly Brush Foundation by joining the Kelly Brush Ride on September 12 out of Middlebury, Vt. On October 22, the foundation will also be hosting Inspire Vermont, a fundraising cocktail party with Kelly Brush and grant recipients at the South End Kitchen in Burlington. www.kellybrushfoundation.org.