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How a Challenge Aspen Vet Found his Soulmate in the Mountains

A love story thirty years in the making.

Tony Drees and his wife Maria at Aspen Snowmass

by Spencer Miller
Today, on a late winter afternoon under a crystalline blue sky, there’s a sense of calm, and the snow is soft and starchy in the right spots. Tony Drees wiggles down each piste, outriggers extended, showing no signs of fatigue, even after skiing all morning. This is day 52 of the season for him, after all. “When I’m skiing, there is no resistance, no limit—like being on water. It’s my Zen state,” he says. “When you’ve been close to death, you really understand life.”

Tony Drees skiing on a bluebird day

Tony Drees skiing on a bluebird day

On February 25th, 1991, a scud missile detonated onto the barracks of American soldiers in Darhan, Saudi Arabia, during the Gulf War—Tony’s barracks.

In a prior interview with the Denver Post, Tony recounts: “The walls I was next to are gone, the roof is gone. There are sounds of people screaming.... I tried to move my leg and tried to put my shoe on, and it flopped in a direction it doesn’t usually go.”

Shrapnel bored into both of his legs, stripping the flesh from his thighs, and fracturing his right femur. “I know 29 families that would trade places with me, right now, though,” he says. Another 98 were wounded, marking the single deadliest event of the war.
NY Times front page on February 26, 1991.
In the following nine months, Tony underwent 58 surgeries, all in an effort to keep his damaged limb. And somehow, he proceeded to “jog out of the hospital.” The miraculous recovery continued, enough so that “people might not even notice” his injury. He casually dropped that he used to bench press 500 pounds, despite weighing just over 200.

Twenty-eight years later, however, doctors finally decided it was time to close the open wound he’d been living with—a decision that, devastatingly, led to the development of squamous cell carcinoma in his leg. After a few more surgeries and numerous attempts to treat the cancer, Tony was left with two choices: aggressive chemo, or amputation. He chose the latter.

Post-recovery, and looking for ways to spend time with his sons Quincy and AJ, Tony was reintroduced to skiing at age 50. This, finally, would turn out to be good fortune.
In April of 2020, about one year after his amputation, Tony was invited to a three-day veterans’ ski clinic at Aspen Snowmass through Challenge Aspen. Surrounded by fellow vets and ski instructors, Tony and his enormous service dog, a 125-pound mastiff named Diva, were pampered with attention. But one instructor held out towards the back, seemingly uninterested.
Later that day, Tony sought out the instructor at lunch, plopped down in front of her, and asked, “So… what’s your story?” The rest of the table fell silent, awaiting a reaction. Maria, trying to play it cool in front of her coworkers, mentioned an upcoming road trip to Montana. “I’m coming with you,” Tony says. “I’ve never been.” He “forced” her digits into his phone, and after their ski session ended that afternoon, Tony shot her a text letting her know that she had made his day. Just like that, “her heart melted.”

The Montana road trip kicked off, and “three weeks and 3,000-something miles later,” so did a profound partnership.
Maria Armstrong

Tony Drees and Maria Armstrong

Tony Drees and Maria Armstrong

Skiing played a big part in that, and still does. “It’s our love language,” says Maria. “It’s the experience of being present with ourselves, and with each other.”

The two are a powerful duo in the industry—Maria is a 31-year instructor and administrator, still working with Challenge Aspen; while Tony is currently an ambassador for Move United, a Denver based organization that provides opportunities to get wounded warriors back into sports. For a man that’s been through hell and back, he knows how valuable any sport can be. “Skiing is one of those things... It elevates your life.” Not to mention, it was the thing that crossed his path with Maria’s.
Maria and Tony ski down the Face of Bell
Tony and Maria skiing down a groomer
“Had you told me the love of my life would be packaged like Tony, I couldn’t have imagined that. But I realized it as soon as he sat down.”

Today, their love is easily seen as they bounce down Ridge of Bell, a double black diamond run that splits the face of Aspen Mountain, trading turn for turn.

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