A Life of Peaks and Valleys, and of Hope
TURIN, Italy, Feb. 27 — A month after Ralph Green was gunned down on a Brooklyn street corner in 1992, his mother mustered the strength to look ahead.
Until he was shot, Green had escaped the violence that plagued his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. He was 15 and a promising high school quarterback. After the shooting, his left leg had to be amputated and he was in a coma.
But Grace Green vowed that her son was not finished.
"I'm not going to let my son be a forgotten one," she told reporters in September 1992. "They say things happen for a purpose. As good as he was in football, he'll be even better in something else."
Sure enough, Ralph Green walked into the Olympic Village here one day last week, leaning on metal crutches, his smile a bright spot on a cold and rainy afternoon. Wearing his United States Paralympic Team jacket, he looked around and marveled at his surroundings.
"The Olympics is something that you see on TV," Green said. "You see the athletes that you see on TV, and they're eating lunch."
Soon, Green will move into his own Olympic Village room, in nearby Sestriere, for the Paralympics, which begin March 10 and will be contested in the same places as the Winter Games. Green, now 28, will compete in all four Alpine skiing disciplines.
He came here last week to help promote the Paralympics, to use his story to raise awareness of sports for those with disabilities. Before he was shot by a stranger, he had never heard of such competitions. He had not even dreamed of skiing.
Once, while flipping through television channels, he said, he stumbled upon a downhill race. "I remember thinking, these guys are crazy," he said.
Green said that with a big laugh, because he took up the sport almost out of the blue in the late 1990's. When he first left the hospital and began to navigate life without his left leg, he tried sports he was familiar with, summer pursuits like track and field. A group took him skiing once in the Poconos, and he hated it.
But a few years later, he decided to try skiing again. He traveled to Winter Park, Colo., where a small ski team for athletes with disabilities trains. He hopped off a chairlift on one ski and two poles with small skis on them. He said it took him an hour and a half to reach the bottom, but something told him this was his sport.
Defying expectations became Green's goal. He moved to Colorado in 2000 and began training. In a few seasons, he made the United States Disabled Alpine Ski Team, the first African-American to do so. Earlier this year, he was named to the Paralympic team. He is sponsored by the National Brotherhood of Skiers and by Home Depot and savors his role as an ambassador for his sport.
Now, when he returns home, which he does often, he gives speeches in schools.
"I get asked some of the weirdest questions," he said. " 'Are you the dude that's ice skating in Alaska?' But it's good that people know I'm doing something different. That's the message that I get across: Don't be afraid to be different."
Green, of course, did not have a choice when he was confronted by his biggest difference. The shooting altered his life. He had been a varsity quarterback as a freshman at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn. He was the starting point guard on the basketball team. He had just taken up track and field and he loved tennis.
In the hospital after he was shot, his four brothers and sisters and his mother were intent on treating him the same as they always had. And he came out fighting. After the United States surgeon general, Dr. Jocelyn Elders, heard his story, she asked him to testify before Congress in support of gun control.
At 16, Green faced a Congressional panel, described his injuries and said his medical care had cost taxpayers more than $1 million. "How many million-dollar bullets will it take before someone wakes up?" he said.
Green is still speaking out, but his topics have changed. He said he believed in the transformative power of sports, particularly for the disabled. But he also said he believed in skiing as a way to give young people a release from the challenges of the streets.
His enthusiasm is infectious. The United States team had him arrive here early, to appear on the "Today" show and to spread his views widely.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Green is a lack of any hint of bitterness. He said he hoped the person who shot him — also a teenager at the time — had turned himself around. He said he was angry at first but learned to get past those feelings.
Mostly, he is thankful for his new life, which allows him to travel the world and turn heads wherever he goes. His teammates and coaches joke that he makes friends before he even leaves an airport.
"I would have been in a totally different reality had I not been shot," Green said. "Through the years, you get an idea that there are six billion souls on the earth and everybody can't be perfect.
"I'm just happy I'm still alive."