Out here on the old Pony Express Trail, in the middle of the west desert, surrounded by sagebrush, tumbleweeds and jackrabbits, the solitude is shattered by the sound of water skiers whooping and hollering as they glide across the glassy surface of a spring-fed fresh water lake.

On closer inspection of this already incongruous scene, it becomes obvious that none of the skiers have the use of their legs. Some have limited use of their upper body as well. And yet, there they are: flying across the water.

Is this a mirage? A sci-fi movie? A scene from the hereafter?

Nope. It’s Adaptive Ski Day at Last Chance Lakes.

* * *

Growing up, Rick Lybbert discovered two loves. One: water skiing. The other: physical therapy.

He fell in love with water skiing first, when he was a young boy and his dad, Dan, towed him behind the family boat on the river near their home in northern California.

He fell in love with physical therapy when he was in junior high and caught a disease called dermatomyositis.

Dermatomyositis is an inflammatory condition that severely weakens the muscles. The disease sent Rick to physical therapy to see if he could get his body back. It took time, pain and effort, but he paid his dues and after four years he was once again skiing behind the family boat.

“I know what it’s like to be disabled,” he says.

The experience was transformative, inspiring him to choose physical therapy as his career. He moved to Utah to attend the University of Utah, obtained his degree and went to work for Mountain Land Physical Therapy, where he remains to this day.

From boardshorts to the boardroom, how father and son surfers found the perfect tie

Recognizing the power of sports as therapy, coupled with his love of water skiing, one of his goals as he began his career was to learn more about adaptive water skiing.

In 2001, he reached out to Meeche White, Utah’s patron saint for the disabled, at the National Ability Center in Park City, who agreed to partner with Rick and host an adaptive ski day at Utah Lake. The center provided disabled skiers, adaptive gear and know-how, while Rick and a few of his friends who lived in nearby Saratoga Springs provided their boats.

It was a good idea with a bad location. The water was rough and choppy and the lake’s parking lots were not wheelchair accessible.

But it got the wheels turning in Rick’s head.

What if he could find a private lake that was wheelchair accessible and hold adaptive ski days there?

Better yet, what if he could build such a place himself?

To make a very long story very short, he found a sod farm atop a fresh water spring in the middle of nowhere in Tooele County (the nearest town, Vernon, population 349, is 5 miles away), bought the farm and water rights, partnered with a patient of his, Cody Larkin, who had blown his knee out wakeboarding and happened to be an excavator, dug two lakes — each 10 feet deep, a football field wide and about half-a-mile long — and — voila! — he had his private water skiing lake.

To pay for this not-inexpensive labor of love/flight of fantasy, Rick turned the rest of the 80 acres into a small housing development, carving out 19 lots on lakefront property and selling them as vacation homes to fellow water skiing enthusiasts.

The result is the Last Chance Lakes community — a veritable oasis adjacent to the very route where Pony Express riders used to deliver the mail.

Brian Cone rides an adaptive water ski while a follow boat drives behind him on Last Chance Lakes near Vernon, Tooele County, on Thursday, July 14, 2022. The follow boat carries spotters who jump out when the rider falls over to help them stay upright in the water and restart the ride. | Ben B. Braun, Deseret News

* * *

The first Adaptive Ski Day was held at Last Chance Lakes in 2009. At least two per summer have been held every year since, giving hundreds of people with a variety of disabilities a turn behind the boat. 

The events are hosted jointly by Mountain Land Physical Therapy and Neuroworx, a Salt Lake-based nonprofit rehabilitation center sponsored by the Joseph and Kathleen Sorenson Foundation that specializes in treating patients with paralysis.

Mountain Land PT furnishes the food, beverages, volunteers, Rick’s house as the launch point and, most importantly, the lakes. Neuroworx provides its patients as water skiers, additional volunteers and, most importantly, Matt Hansen, a linebacker-sized therapist — dubbed “The Crane” by Rick — who makes lifting prospective water skiers from wheelchairs to water skiing sleds look effortless.

Last month, on July 14, the first Adaptive Ski Day of 2022 was held at Last Chance Lakes. The second event is coming up Aug. 23.

How a prostate cancer survivor learned that sometimes less is more

I was there, along with other media invited to attend the July event. Two scenes stand out.

The first was the surprise of taking a left off the dusty gravel road that is the authentic Pony Express Trail and actually seeing a blue-water lake.

The second one trumped it: watching and listening to people water skiing who either thought they’d never do it again, or ever do it at all.

Just a year ago, Tyson Weisenburger, 38, was in a coma. He’d contracted COVID-19, which led to the autoimmune disease Guillain-Barre syndrome, which put him in a 28-day coma and then a wheelchair. He’s fighting to walk again, but at Last Chance Lakes he took a break from his rehab and went water skiing for the first time in his life.

“What a rush?” he gushed as he soaked in a hot tub after his turn on the lake. “I decided I want to do more adventurous things in my life.”

Twenty-something Courteney Custer lost the use of her legs two years ago in a four-wheeling accident. Undaunted, she’s embraced adaptive sports in every possible way. Earlier in the month she went mountain-bike riding and now she could add water skiing to the list.

“It’s so fun to go fast and do something crazy,” she exulted after multiple laps up and down the half-mile lake.

Courteney’s best friend, Taylor Cutler, a paraplegic with the energy of a nuclear power plant, tried to wear the boat out during her runs. 

“Oh my gosh, it means the world that they’d do this for us,” she said as Rick Lybbert docked the boat and Matt “The Crane” Hansen lifted her out of the water.

It went on like that all day at Last Chance Lakes: whoops and hollers shattering the solitude at a middle-of-nowhere Shangri-La built by a man who appreciates how good gliding across the water can make you feel — and knows what it’s like to be disabled.