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In a new short film, adaptive athlete Tony Drees brings new meaning to the phrase ‘One for All’

Adaptive athlete Tony Drees skis down the mountain on one leg in a still from the short film “One for All.”
Courtesy of Spencer Miller and Michael CB Stevens
Adaptive athlete Tony Drees skis down the mountain on one leg in a still from the short film “One for All.” The film screened at the 5Point Adventure Film Festival, where it won the Hayden Kennedy Award.

Tony Drees is pretty easy to spot on the mountain.

He skis — rips, really — in bright green and orange gear, with a big smile and boisterously friendly personality. And he does it on one leg, with outrigger poles for support.

“Even though you see me ripping around and jumping around, I’m not messing around,” Drees said in the short film “One for All” that screened at the 5Point Adventure Film Festival last month.

“So when people ask me if I’m doing crazy stuff or trying to push the limit, I’m not,” Drees said. “I understand how society thinks. When they see me ski, ‘if that guy could try to go ski on one leg, and get good enough at it to ski on one leg, what could I do?’”

In the film, Drees said his philosophy is about way more than just skiing.

“I'm helping people to relieve their own suffering,” he said. “That's true freedom.”

And even though this new short film is technically about his effort to land a one-legged backflip on skis, “One for All” is about a lot more too. It will screen in a 5Point “encore” presentation at The Arts Campus at Willits (TACAW) on Wednesday, part of a slate of adventure films that grapple with major life challenges and philosophical questions through the lens of recreation.

Spencer Miller, the co-director and co-producer of the film, said in an interview that it isn’t so much a ski movie as it is one with skiing in it.

“This is a film about Tony and his character and the trials and tribulations that he's been through, and really how he greets his days with a certain grit and a certain grace,” Miller said.

Miller picked up on that energy when he first met Drees a couple winters ago to write a blog post about the adaptive skier for the Aspen Skiing Company.

He knew he needed to take the story to the screen, and teamed up with fellow filmmaker Michael CB Stevens to make the vision a reality.

Stevens says he thought he would just help with one interview, but ended up co-directing and co-producing the film.

“Once I did that interview, it kind of blew me away, it knocked me back to a way that I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, like, I have to commit to this,” Stevens said.

Stevens attributes the power of the film to the story Drees tells in it.

Drees endured an abusive childhood before landing with the foster family that would support him through his teenage years.

He joined the army at 18, then at 23 survived a Gulf War bombing that killed 29 people and wounded dozens more.

Drees was determined to recover with both legs intact, and he did — until, three decades later, he developed cancer in the right leg that was first injured in that bombing.

Doctors amputated the leg at the hip in 2018, and it wasn’t long after that the Purple Heart veteran connected with skiing through a Challenge Aspen clinic at Snowmass Ski Area.

“Tony's had to display an extreme amount of determination and courage to just to just continue living,” Stevens said.

Miller recognizes that too.

“He has every reason to be angry at the world for all the traumas that he's been through, but he chooses not to do that,” Miller said. “He’s just so appreciative of every moment he has, and he expresses that through skiing.”

Drees said he finds purpose in helping others — in sharing his pain, so people can find meaning through difficult circumstances of all kinds.

“I don't think that my life is so special that I've gone through all this stuff,” he said in a phone interview. “I feel like my life is special in that I've gone through pain that other people have gone through and I found a way to share it, in a way that helps people heal.”

It’s a philosophy that clearly resonates with viewers of the new film.

Miller says “One For All” got a standing ovation at the screening during the main 5Point festival in Carbondale last month.

The film, which was funded by a grant from 5Point, also won the “Hayden Kennedy Award” created in honor of the late Carbondale climber.

The award recognizes a film that best embodies the “five points” of the festival: purpose; respect; commitment; humility; and balance.

“It kind of felt like, honestly, the biggest award that I could ever been awarded in my life,” Stevens said. “And I think that Tony's story is so deserving of that award.”

Drees is feeling the love too.

“I can't go anywhere,” Drees joked. “Everybody's like, ‘Tony, I saw your movie.’”

Drees appreciates the support and sees the impact it might have in a bigger picture. He said the goal of the film is to challenge perceptions of ability and disability.

“If you see me, you think I'm a one legged person, or if you think that, based on what you see that I could do XYZ or only accomplish XYZ, I hope to blow that away, to the point that you don’t have those kind of constraints anymore with your own mind and your own eyes,” Drees said.

The 5Point Encore screening begins at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday night at TACAW. A “virtual encore” will be available May 5th through the 12th through 5Point’s website.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.