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Catching Air

When serendipity speaks, this flight attendant tunes in to the chatter

Author Marie Reinke

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Monica Ehman seems like someone who could squeeze 25 hours out of any given day. This may be the reason organizers of the Sochi 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games accepted her volunteer application from among the 185,000 they received.

“I’ve lived through three fires, an earthquake, a tornado while camping and a tropical depression while sailing,” she says. “Our boat lost both engines and all navigational equipment, and we drifted for three days until landing in the Bahamas.” When her surroundings serve up adventure, she leans into it, using the same problem-solving and leadership skills that have served her during her 15 years as a United flight attendant.

Two days before Ehman was scheduled to start a job at a cross-country ski lodge while on her first leave from United, the facility burned to the ground. “So I worked in a daycare center that winter and taught a co-worker from Australia how to snowboard. We hit all the resorts in Tahoe,” she says. “The next winter, I wrote to a cookbook author I admired and asked for a job. I became the 4 a.m. baker at a ski resort in Park City, Utah.”

Park City is also home to the National Ability Center, which trains Paralympic athletes. Ehman visited the center and shared an apartment with an Olympic skier, and she befriended the Australian aerial ski team in 2005.

Ehman also volunteered at the Sundance Film Festival when the big buzz was about Murderball, a documentary featuring quadriplegic athletes who play wheelchair rugby. “I had a few of the guys from the movie on my flight,” she says. She recognized their competition chairs and chatted with them about their sport, which piqued her curiosity about their abilities and drive.

Then, four years ago, on a flight to India, she met a customer who changed her perceptions about athletes with disabilities.

At 16 years old, Wes Bandemer broke his neck in a moto-cross incident and became paralyzed. “He is the most incredible, most positive person I’ve ever met in my life,” Ehman says. “At first he had no movement in his hands, but now, thanks to stem-cell treatments and years of rehabilitation, he has regained enough movement to catch a balloon. It is huge for him. Thanks to Wes, I’ve learned so much about what is still possible in regard to sports.”

A sports aficionado herself, Ehman has a passion for snowboarding. While completing a Parks and Recreation bachelor’s degree while on special leave from United, Ehman learned that in 2014, snowboarding will join the ranks of competitive sports in the Paralympic Games.

“I’ve been a snowboarder my whole life,” she said. “I was hooked from the moment I tried it. It’s where I can go and forget my worries. I know what it can do for peoples’ confidence. It’s the same with any activity or sport: You take inner-city kids into the woods, and, suddenly, they’re making a campfire or paddling a canoe across a lake.”

A caregiver by nature, Ehman volunteers with the Minneapolis Beacons Network to improve the academic and social lives of youth in low-income communities. She also works with the Holiday Hope program in Stillwater, Minn., which ensures a happy holiday to families, people with disabilities and low-income seniors. Three days a week, she works as an activities director for the mentally ill.

“Any athlete is amazing to watch,” she says. “But to see people with disabilities out there, at the top of their game, is hugely inspiring. Where do they get that motivation, that determination?”

She knows a lot about the 2014 Paralympic hopefuls. “Many of the competitors were snowboarders before they lost their legs through accidents or disease,” she says. “After their injuries, they knew there were prosthetics that would allow them to run, walk or ski, but until they blazed the trail, nobody knew if they could snowboard.”

In February, Ehman will be working in event services for the Coastal Village, but her heart will be with the snowboarders. “My fingers are crossed I’ll get to catch some of the action on the mountain,” she says.

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