Sullivan Recognizes Doug Keil as “Alaskan of the Week”

WASHINGTON—On the floor of the U.S. Senate yesterday, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) recognized Doug Keil, of Anchorage, a para-alpine skier who was the first American man ever to win a gold medal at the Paralympic Games when he competed in Norway in 1980. After his historic wins, Keil returned to Alaska and spent the next 30 years building the structures, organizations and culture necessary to create opportunities for other Paralympic athletes. In 1980, Keil founded Challenge Alaska, a nonprofit that has enabled thousands of Alaskans and non-Alaskans alike to find joy, good health and independence through sports and recreation. Challenge Alaska recently celebrated its 40th anniversary at a banquet in Anchorage.

Keil was recognized as part of Sen. Sullivan’s series, “Alaskan of the Week."

Tribute to Doug Keil

Mr. President, I want to move on to my favorite time of the week. It is Thursday, so I usually come down on the Senate floor and talk about the Alaskan of the Week.

Now, we all believe our States are the best. Each State loves to brag a little bit about their own State. That is great. It is what makes our country competitive, a little bit of competition here in the Senate. But I happen to speak the truth when I talk about how Alaska is the best State, and it is because of the people.

I am going to talk a little bit about Doug Keil, who is today's Alaskan of the Week. I always like to start--you know, the pages enjoy this speech a lot because we get to talk a little bit about Alaska and the adventures and what is happening in the great State of Alaska. So I will give a little update on that. 

On January 22, that was the polar night in Utqiagvik, AK, the northernmost town in all of North America. What happened on January 22 is that polar night--as they call it there--finally ended. That is 65 days of darkness finally ended. That is 65 days of darkness.

On January 22, the Sun crept a little over the horizon briefly. Like a long lost friend, the community gathered to say hello to the Sun. It has been cold up North. It has been a cold winter. It is about 20 below in Utqiagvik today. It has been relatively balmy in Anchorage where our Alaskan of the Week lives--warm enough to be sleeting right now.

But in all weather, all around the State, people are getting out, gathering, enjoying the Sun that stays in our skies a little bit longer each day. They are dogsledding--training for the Iditarod. They are snow-machining, playing hockey, skiing, snowboarding--so many winter sports.

We, in our State, are chockful of excellent winter athletes--great winter athletes. We punch way above our weight in terms of Winter Olympics. Many Alaskans are competing now in Beijing, as we speak, and we are rooting for all of them. Of course, we are rooting for all of America's athletes.

We are also preparing to root for the amazing athletes who will be competing in the Paralympics, also in Beijing, starting March 4. Again, many Alaskans will be there competing: cross-country skier, Grace Miller; snowboarder, Katy Maddry, a former Alaskan of the Week alum; and former gold medal Paralympian, Andrew Kurka. He will be competing in Beijing in the sit-ski events. 

Now, I am mentioning all of this because our Alaskan of the Week, Doug Keil, says every one of these athletes--both in the Olympics and in Paralympics and all of our amateur athletes across the State--are there because of athletes who have gone before them. I think that is true. 

Paving that path, of course, has been all the more challenging for America's Paralympian athletes. But it is a path that Doug, our Alaskan of the Week, has really paved for Alaska--for America--a deep one. And he has done it through grit and pain and determination.

In 1980, Doug Keil brought home two gold medals from the 1980 Paralympic Games in Norway. That was the second-ever Paralympic Games. He was the first American male to bring home gold in those games, and he spent the next 30-plus years building not only the structures and the organizations but, importantly, the culture in Alaska and in America to make sure other athletes with disabilities could come after him. 

Let me tell you a little bit about our Alaskan of the Week, Doug Keil. Doug was born in Beirut, Lebanon. His parents Don and Margaret, who went by “Midge,” were adventuresome. From New York, they were on a 4-year overseas trip. Don, the father, was teaching high school physics and Midge was working at the United Nations in the Palestinian refugee camps when they had Doug, the oldest of what would be five children, four girls and Doug. I know one of the girls really well, Carrie, Doug's sister, who works as part of my team in Anchorage doing constituent casework. She recently hit the milestone of successfully helping 2,000 different Alaskans. Carrie, great job. You are amazing--just as amazing as your brother Doug. Her success rate is off the charts. I see it every day.

When Doug and Carrie's family came back to America, they moved to Alaska. Don's brother--that is the dad, Don--built houses, and Don helped him for a while. Eventually, Don the father--Doug's father--got a senior job with the Federal Aviation Administration. 

Doug, our Alaskan of the Week, was an active kid. He loved sports, mostly baseball and skiing. His plan was to follow in his father's footsteps and go to Springfield College in Massachusetts. He wanted to be a physical education teacher and to play baseball, but he had some tragedy. When Doug was 15, he took a trip to Juneau to visit a school friend. And on August 28, 1968, he and his friend were exploring an old gold mine in Juneau. Doug got struck by 24,000 volts of electricity--24,000 volts of electricity. In the process, he lost an arm and lost a leg. As we can all expect, the next few years were very difficult ones for Doug and his family. As he said, “When you get hit by 24,000 volts of electricity, it messes you up physically. Mentally, my whole world was gone.”

Talk about grit and determination. He spent about 2 years in the hospital and his dreams, he thought, had died. To make it all the more difficult, his father had to move the family to the DC area for a job with the FAA when Doug was just a sophomore in high school, still learning how to use an artificial arm and artificial leg. But the family stuck together. They had faith, and they pulled through. 

Back in Alaska, though, something remarkable happened. At this point, Doug hadn't tried to ski again because he thought those days were over without an arm, without a leg. But someone in their church told his parents about a program in Colorado--in Winter Park, CO--where they were training athletes to ski with disabilities. The first day he was there, Doug went to Winter Park. It coincided with the first day of what was then called the National Handicapped Championships. 

Doug said: 

I saw amazing athletes. I saw men and women who had come back [many disabled veterans from Vietnam]. . . . I saw them skiing and it opened up my eyes to a completely different world. 

Doug was inspired in many ways by our disabled Vietnam veterans who helped train him, helped inspire him. He came back to Alaska to train in this area and went back to Winter Park in 1977 to race in the Nationals in the slalom event and did so again in 1979, both of which qualified him for the 1980 Paralympics.

Along with two gold medals from those Olympics, he brought a mission back to Alaska: starting a skiing program for people with physical disabilities. He said at the time that skiing was amazing. It would give him a “feeling of motion. It's like running again. It can be fluid. When it feels good up through your body, your body smiles and when your body smiles, you smile.” And he wanted others to have that experience.

In the 1980s, of course, Alaska had mountains and snow and landscape begging to be played in but did not have a culture that encouraged people with disabilities to be part of those winter activities. Doug explained to a reporter in 1980 that as a one-legged skier, he was an anomaly in Alaska.

He said:

I've been skiing [there] for 5 years by myself. Up . . . [in Alaska]-- 

Someone with disabilities—

[T]hey see me coming down the slopes and they say “What the  [heck] is that?” People just [weren't] used to [seeing] it  [in 1980].

And this is where the story moves from one individual, Doug, to thousands. Doug and a handful of others got busy. They formed a nonprofit called Challenge Alaska, and they hit the road. Doug, who had a full-time job in cable, still made the time for starting this great organization, Challenge Alaska. They got people out on the slopes. They trained them. They gathered all the adaptive equipment they could get their hands on, and they dug in. 

Forty years later, with an expanded mission now including all outdoor activities, including summer activities--kayaking, cycling, wheelchair Frisbee, fishing, camping, and so much more--Challenge Alaska, started by Doug Keil, has helped over a thousand people in Alaska get out into Alaska's great outdoors in winter and summer. Some of the most incredible athletes you have ever met started their careers in athletics with Challenge Alaska.

Just two weekends ago, my wife Julie and I had the opportunity to attend Challenge Alaska's 40th anniversary gala dinner. Now, I know a lot of my colleagues here--we go out to a lot of events when we are back home. This was one of the most inspiring events I have attended in a long, long time. Julie and I got to sit with the current executive director of Challenge Alaska, Nate Boltz; his wife, Leah; daughter, Anna; his parents, Jim and Laurie; his grandmother, Adeline. There were amazing speeches. One young man named Ryan Johnson, a recent high school graduate with cerebral palsy, spoke. Incredible. There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

And, of course, Doug was there. Doug was there, the founder of Challenge Alaska--40 years of work--and he was honored for this great life achievement.

In that 1980 article I mentioned earlier, I talked about when he was talking about skiing on the slopes alone as someone with one leg, he said that if he could have a plaque that said he was instrumental in starting a program to help other people with disabilities in Alaska to learn to enjoy the outdoors--skiing, winter, summer--he would be a happy man. That was 40 years ago when he said that. Well, he should be happy. He has done that and so much more. Thousands of people have been positively impacted by what he has done.

Here is another remarkable thing. His inspiration went far beyond Alaska. It has literally touched the globe. He tells the story about how in the nineties, 13 people with disabilities from Japan came to ski with and learn from the people in Challenge Alaska. Doug was working at Challenge Alaska. He, unfortunately, wasn't able to ski with our Japanese visitors. But when they were leaving town, he met them at the airport to say goodbye. One of them, who was also missing an arm and a leg from a construction accident, stepped forward and, through an interpreter, told Doug that after his accident, he thought about taking his own life. Then this young Japanese man said to Doug that he saw a documentary about Doug. And he said to Doug:

I vowed that I would learn to ski, [I would] come to Alaska and ski with [Challenge Alaska]. Thank you [Doug] for saving my life.

That is pretty powerful stuff right there--one person in Japan whose life was saved by Doug Keil and all the great people at Challenge Alaska.

So, Doug, thank you for saving lives. Thank you for your inspiration to so many. Thank you for what you have done for Alaska, for Challenge Alaska, for the State, for the Paralympian athletes we are going to watch and cheer on here in a couple of weeks. And congratulations on being our Alaskan of the Week.

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