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Longevity Project: Panelists discuss what it takes to overcome life’s most difficult challenges

Austin Colbert
The Aspen Times

IF YOU GO ...

What: The Longevity Project

Speaker: Sean Swarner, longtime adventurer and first cancer survivor to summit Mount Everest

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Online

Part of being human is finding courage to stay the course when life wants to go in a different direction. Paralympic snowboarder Noah Elliott knows all about overcoming those challenges after he decided to have his leg amputated so he could pursue sports again.

“No matter who you are, you experience an ‘I can’t’ moment in your life,” Elliott said. “Although it’s hard to see, those ‘I can’t’ moments are the moments that define you as a person and define your next chapter.”

Elliott, who currently serves as the outreach program director for Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports in Steamboat Springs, was one of four guest speakers who took part in a virtual panel Tuesday as part of the annual Longevity Project, which was moderated by Aspen Times editor David Krause.

Other guests included Dash Doung Wong, a cancer survivor who now lives in Aspen; Nick Isenberg, a blind and partially deaf journalist who lives in the Roaring Fork Valley; and Kailyn Forsberg, a former freeskier from Eagle whose life and career took a turn when a crash during a slopestyle warm-up left her lower body paralyzed.

The Longevity Project — a four-part editorial series that includes two virtual events — focuses on living well in the mountains. A major theme of Tuesday’s panel was learning to overcome life’s most difficult obstacles.

“Having a great support system off the bat was definitely something that encouraged me to push as hard as I could. Without that, I don’t believe I would have been able to be where I am today,” Forsberg said of her injury five years ago before reflecting on her first time getting to sit ski at Winter Park. “There were emotional boundaries there. I was so curious about the physical limitations I would have. But just sitting there when they got me all set up in the sit ski, I was just like, ‘This is what I love to do.’ And I’m not going to let an accident just stop me from doing things I love.”

Earlier this spring, Wong had to fight off a bout with COVID-19. He said he’s back to “100%” although the disease did leave his only lung scarred. His other lung was removed because of cancer and that decision was a difficult one for Wong, who knew he would be giving up his military career. He had spent more than a decade as a Navy SpecOps before being medically discharged. He now devotes much of his time to veteran causes.

“The only ‘I can’t do this moment’ was when I had to choose to remove my lung. It was a choice I had to make, whether I was going to fight cancer through other means or if I was going to go with the surgical route,” Wong said. “I put so much of my identity and who I was into my job or my work, where it became everything of me. And because of a certain event that happened to me, all of it was taken away. That was the most destructive thing that could have ever happened to me and I was left in a dilemma of trying to figure out, ‘Who am I?’”

When it comes to overcoming life’s most difficult challenges, each of the panelists talked about putting focus on what one can do, as opposed to what one can’t do. Despite not being able to see, Isenberg has found a way to empower the blind through his radio series, “The Tactile Traveler.” Elliott works with children who are dealing with similar physical challenges, and Forsberg continues to move forward despite barely being able to move at all.

“That just puts you in the mindset of negativity and things you are not going to be able to do. But if something happens, you just have to take it one day at a time,” Forsberg said of dealing with simple things, such as not being able to go on hikes with her friends. “There is no point in wallowing in the fact I can’t do what they are doing. I have to look forward and look at myself and do the things I can still do.”

The Longevity Project will conclude Wednesday with its second virtual event, a talk with keynote speaker Sean Swarmer, the first cancer survivor to have summited Mount Everest. The free discussion begins at 6 p.m. Viewers can register ahead of time at aspentimes.com/longevity.

The Longevity Project is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Summit Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today and Vail Daily.

acolbert@aspentimes.com


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