Peter Hershorn Sails, Skin-Dives and Kayaks Too: Not Bad for a Paraplegic
‘If I thought about limitations, I’d still be in the hospital’
When doctors first told Peter Hershorn he had severed his spinal cord and would never walk again, his reaction was combative—as usual. “—you,” he snapped. “I don’t believe it.” Four months and two operations later, Hershorn had accepted the idea of paralysis, but not of abandoning his competitive life-style. “It makes me mad when people say I’ve got limitations,” he says now, more than six years after the skiing accident that robbed him of the use of his legs. “If I did, I’d still be in a hospital somewhere. Nobody tells me what to do.”
Few would have the temerity to try. At 31, the Montreal-born college dropout has become one of the most daring paraplegic athletes (of an estimated 25,000) in the world. Hershorn has sailed a catamaran in national competition, scuba-dived off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and paddled a frail kayak through the most treacherous white water in North America. “Peter has to work at kayaking,” says his instructor, Kirk Baker. “He’s strong in the upper body, but it’s hard for him to balance the boat. He does well because of his incredible willpower.”
It was Hershorn’s willfulness—some have called it arrogance—that led to his tragic fall in 1973. The indulged son of wealthy parents, he quit Canada’s Sir George Williams University in 1968, qualified as a ski patrolman and arrived in Aspen, Colo. two years later. “It was a beautiful place, great for my allergies,” he says, “but my father called me a bum for doing nothing but skiing.” Many Aspenites, including several who have become his friends, were equally disenchanted. “Peter was carefree and less than responsible,” says one. “He was living for the moment.” Adds another: “He was immature, and trying to prove himself to his family.”
Hershorn quit his job as a ski instructor in 1971, after friction with other members of the Aspen staff, and set out to seek his fortune on the new hot-dog skiing circuit. Two years later, competing in the national championships at Steamboat Springs, Colo., he rejected advice to try something less risky than a double back layout with a spread eagle. “I lifted off perfectly,” he recalls. “If only I’d had 10 more feet of height. I don’t remember landing.” In fact, he was lucky to survive at all. The helicopter taking him to a Denver hospital crashed en route, necessitating a second desperate rescue mission. He was hospitalized for four months, then, with furious impatience, battled his way through a physical therapy course.
Angrily rejecting pity, Hershorn took up sailing only 17 months after the accident, harnessing himself to his Hobie Cat to keep from tumbling overboard. Soon afterward he became the first paraplegic to qualify for senior scuba diving certification. (To get into the water unassisted for his night diving test, he simply rolled his wheelchair down a ramp into the pool and paddled away.) By 1978 Peter was ready for kayaking, wedged into the little craft with Styrofoam padding and secured by a seat belt. Last fall he proved his ability during a three-week, 280-mile voyage down the churning rapids of the Grand Canyon. “I lived with fear for weeks before the trip,” he later admitted, “but I learned to deal with it in order to go.”
Hershorn remains intensely proud of his ability to compete with non-paraplegics, but those who know him say he is mellowing all the same. “I’ve watched Peter grow,” says his close pal Jay Johnson. “He’s made friends on his own, whereas six or seven years ago he would have just driven them away.” Today Hershorn runs a small real estate operation and lives alone in a condominium at the base of Aspen Mountain. He rarely associates with other paraplegics, and sometimes, with the aid of a crutch, he dances the night away at discos in town. “At first,” says his lady friend Janet Light-foot, 27, “I felt a little like Jane Fonda in Coming Home. You have to have a sense of humor to handle things sometimes.” Peter, she says, is sensitive and intelligent, but sometimes demanding. “I have respect for myself and confidence in what I do,” he explains simply. “I’m always looking for new horizons.”