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Instructor skis again after disability from rare cancer

Submitted photo — Sixteen years after being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer that exists in the bones of the skull and spine, Natchez resident Adolf Jonaitis skis on the slopes at Winter Park Resort in Colorado using a Bi Ski.
Submitted photo — Sixteen years after being diagnosed with a rare type of cancer that exists in the bones of the skull and spine, Natchez resident Adolf Jonaitis skis on the slopes at Winter Park Resort in Colorado using a Bi Ski.

NATCHEZ — Adolf Jonaitis once believed he would never feel the white snow beneath his feet again.

Jonaitis spent most of his life skiing across the country and even in parts of Canada, Chile and Norway. But in 1998, Jonaitis was diagnosed with clival Chordoma, which is a rare type of cancer that exists in the bones of the skull and spine. It later led to surgeries and a five-year hiatus from instructing ski lessons, which is his passion.

“His last ski lesson he gave was in 2009,” said Adolf’s wife, Pat. “He professionally retired in 2000 as a metallurgical engineer, but he started ski instructing at Copper Mountain in 1999 to 2008. That became his job full time.”

Adolf, who met his wife in Indiana before living with her in Colorado and eventually moving to Natchez in 2006, was told he would live five to seven years after his diagnosis in 1998. He remained active until a surgery in 2010 caused a cranial bleed. He developed hydrocephalus — excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain — and a lack of coordination as a result.

“In those two years we had to learn to do things differently,” Pat said. “I didn’t think he’d ever get back to skiing. And then we got a phone call.”

This year marks his 16th year since being diagnosed, and for his 60th birthday last month, Jonaitis’ occupational therapist friend set up a lesson at the National Sports Center For the Disabled, where Adolf could learn to use a Bi Ski at Winter Park Resort in Colorado. The Bi Ski required Adolf to ski in a sitting position, with a strap around him, connecting him to a skier behind him.

“All he had to do was hold Adolf back from speeding,” Pat said, laughing. “Adolf initiated all of his turns though, and it was fantastic. We’re going to try again next year.”

The Grand Rapides, Mich., native first started skiing when he was 6 years old. Behind his father’s farm there was a ski hill that was closed down, but that didn’t stop Adolf from climbing the hill in skis and skiing down it.

His love for skiing became apparent to his wife of more than 30 years on their first date.

“When I met Adolf in Fort Wayne, the first place he took me was the Fort Wayne ski club meeting,” Pat said. “And then they started to teach me how to ski.”

The thought of seeing her husband back in his natural setting elicited an emotional response from Pat.

“We were all crying,” said Pat with tears rolling down her cheeks.

Adolf was thankful for the opportunity.

“It was amazing being on the snow,” said Adolf with a big smile, tapping the side of his chair in excitement.

No longer able to ski on a regular basis, Adolf still keeps in contact with those who he’s skied with over the years. One girl in particular, Allison Jones, is currently in the Sochi Paralympics skiing with one leg.

“When Allison was little, Adolf skied with her,” Pat said. “She’s 29 now and they met when she was 6. They would ski together every winter.”

Jones won the bronze medal for the United States March 8 in the standing downhill. That was the eighth medal of her career.

Every morning, Pat goes to her computer and awaits a message from Jones’ younger sister, informing her how Jones did in her latest event.

With skiing no longer an everyday option for Adolf, Pat said they are hopeful that Adolf can take up golf. Adolf remains reinvigorated about life and continues to push himself to the limit, staying true to his extreme nature.

“The great thing about it is Adolf has maintained his sense of humor, he has a great outlook on life and with each challenge, he adjusts his life a little bit and we still go, don’t we?” said Pat looking at her husband.

“Oh, yeah,” Adolf said.