Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra inspires veteran to resume passion for sports
You’d understand if Sarah Bettencourt told you she was a little tired.
Just having two boys ages three years and three months respectively would test anyone’s endurance.
But Sarah Bettencourt’s challenge only begins there, a challenge befitting a Marine.
Bettencourt was medically retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2012 due to a rare neurological disorder which remains officially undiagnosed to this day.
The disorder affects different parts of her body. Essentially, something can stop working at anytime, anywhere, though her primary symptoms are that she can’t feel from the ankle down in either leg, and the feeling in her hands comes and goes, though she usually has enough strength to grip. She also suffers from some visual impairment.
Bettencourt, who lives with her husband Matt and two boys in the San Diego area, says her disorder is service-connected, stemming from when she was training to fly helicopters.
When she first retired from the service, Bettencourt acknowledges she was pretty down. “I went from serving my nation as a Marine officer to doing nothing,” she says.
She looked into applying to graduate school programs but soon realized that based upon her physical limitations, she’d need to hire a personal assistant just to get through it. How do you take notes if you can’t convince your hand to work?
She also despaired about not playing sports. “I thought I’d never be able to do that again,” she said.
Meanwhile, she was hiding the extent of her disability from her husband, who was in the Navy and deployed at the time. She didn’t want her condition to impact his career.
She literally talks about crawling to the bath tub with her arms (because her legs had stopped working), because filling the tub was the only way she could access drinking water.
It was only when she blacked out during an evening out with her former commanding officer that a wider circle learned of the secrets Sarah was keeping about the extent of her condition. Her husband was contacted and told to come home. He’s been her caregiver ever since. “And there were days where he would literally carry me to the bathroom,” she says.
Now here comes the Mammoth part of the story.
Bettencourt learned about Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra in 2014. “They told me they’d take me skiing,” she recalls. “I kept protesting, saying I didn’t have the capacity to do it. They ignored me and told me to come up.”
They put her in a bucket on a mono ski. And she loved it.
As Bettencourt explains, “DSES … is about the people. There’s that intangible feeling when you’re there [with DSES] of ‘Hey, let’s figure out how to solve this problem, because you can absolutely do this.’”
“They taught me really well how to trust my skis,” she continued. “I’ve found that if I try to stay upright, I fall, because I’m overthinking it. Whereas if I try to fall, lean forward, trust the skis … it works.”
And for Bettencourt, the experience translated to: I can get my life back. I can get my limbs back. I can get my chores back.
“They [DSES] provide the attitude and tools to help you be successful.”
The success and fun Sarah had with adaptive skiing led her to return to San Diego and form a women’s sled hockey team. She is currently a member of the U.S. Development Sled Hockey team.
Bettencourt attends 2-3 DSES events per year, both winter and summer. Summer activities include kayaking, rock climbing, hand cycling, fishing, paddleboarding, camping …
And over time, she says she has seen her condition stabilize. A lot of that involves taking better care of herself.
While she instinctively has a push, push, push to exhaustion mentality, she says she’s gotten better at saying no, resting, taking better care of herself. Eat, sleep, workout, hydration …
DSES Instructor Rick Dodson has noticed the change as well.
“She was always a darn good athlete,” he said. But at the outset, there were a couple of tells which indicated when she’d had too much. “I knew it was time to take a break when her speech started slurring or if she’d start giggling a lot,” he said.
Interestingly, Dodson says he’s noticed Sarah’s gotten a lot stronger and has a lot more stamina since her son Tyler was born in 2015.
At home, the Bettencourts have no housekeeper. Their home has been modified with 30” counters to facilitate cooking, laundry, dishes.
“My height is kid height,” she observes wryly.
Three-and-a-half year old son Tyler has been taught to be independent at a young age.
As an example, Sarah says, “When we’re at Legoland, there are certain rides he wants to do that I can’t do. So I encourage him to ask strangers to ride rides with him. And afterwards he gets off and comes running up to me and tells me all about it.”
Husband Matt, in addition to caregiving at home, also works as a military contractor (heli instructor).
As to her state of mind, Bettencourt says frankly, “I feel sorry for myself about once a day. I constantly battle with that depressive impulse … My response is to go and do something I love. But I know I can do it, that everything’s gonna be fine.”
While Bettencourt is an incredible success story (in large part due to the support of her spouse), she is an advocate for the National Wounded Warrior Center proposed to be built in Mammoth Lakes (on the Cerro Coso campus).
“I would have used it [Wounded Warrior Center] had it been available at the time I needed it,” she says.
The Center, as proposed, would allow Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra to provide support services to more than 300 veterans and their families each year.
The 36-room facility would provide transitional housing designed for veterans, and include areas for recreation, learning and dining.
Veterans would also have access to educational and vocational programs, wellness and PTSD management training and therapeutic recreational opportunities.
DSES is in the midst of an $18 million capital campaign. See the facing page for details.