With Event One—the High-Speed Human Shot-Put—firmly in hand (pun intended), I moved on to my main event—training as a racer for the alpine downhill competition at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Paralympic Games.
It’s worth mentioning that in order to ski without an arm and a leg, you are required to make a few basic preliminary decisions before heading up the mountain. These decisions fall conspicuously outside the realm of selecting ear warmers or mittens. They are:
- One leg or two?
- One ski or two?
- One arm or two?
- One pole or two?
- Regular poles or outriggers?
- Follow convention or innovate?
As a rule, people missing a leg use one ski, balancing their residual limb in limbo (pun just now created) with the aid of two “outriggers”—adaptive crutches modified with mini-skis at their base. I can tell you now, that rule was going to be broken. Skiing on one ski with the aid of only one outrigger seems a little risky to this train spotter. I mean, I like my face just the way it is. Furthermore, the functional benefits of using my prosthetic arm to hold a pole, when weighed against the risk of shredding a $43,000 bionic upper-extremity in a high-speed ski crash, was not something I wanted to explain to Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
No … I would ski with one pole. And since I’d been using my XT-9 Energy Storing Knee (XT-9.com) in early attempts on the bunny slope … contrary to usual practice, I was gonna ski two-skied. So here’s the profile:
- Two legs
- Two skis
- One arm
- One outrigger
- One goal!!!
It was with this plan that I headed into the New Year, after skiing during the last two days of 2007. What followed was eight weeks of tweaking and training. I have some very exciting news to report, and it’s not all good. In the adaptive world, we call these experiences, and the information gleaned from them, “learnings.” Sounds so amenable. Not always.
I “learned” firsthand that prosthetic screws tight enough for everyday walking are not tight enough for skiing. I had this pounded into my very non-bionic skull as my prosthetic leg twisted beneath me like Oksana Baiul performing a tight spin on the competition ice. Great for figure skating. For downhill skiing, not so much. When we tightened down the knee, the ankle would rotate, when we tightened down the ankle, the knee would act up again. I felt less like Bode Miller, and more like that Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, trying to direct my body using two skis and conspicuously absent joints. Finally, we pinned all the joint areas (read: welded) and all was well. Thank God, because the following weekend was my first ever Disabled Sports USA Level 1 Race, and I was out for pre-Paralympic glory.
I arrived a day early, to train a little and meet the folks from Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sport, one of the East Coast’s premiere skiing and racing outfits. Up until now, I’d been skiing mostly on my own and hadn’t yet met many adaptive skiers. There were thirty other racers in the field. Would they be good … would I be good? Walking into the lodge to register, I began to see and size up the competition. There were amputees. There were paraplegics. There were blind skiers. My first thought was, I can win this thing.
My second thought was, wow, look at all these people with all these challenges. What could have happened to make that person blind? Was it an accident? Was he blind at birth? What would I do if I were in a wheelchair, blind or somehow mentally challenged? I mean, what am I doing here? Look at me, I’m … well … I’m … and then, it hit me.
I’m missing an arm and a leg. Eternally modified by a single moment in time. But in that moment, with all those people there, I completely forgot about my “disability” (more on that misnomer later) and was consumed with empathy for all these other poor racers in the room. I realized that my “whole body image” had not been injured or “dismembered” (more on that one, too) at the time of the train wreck, or even during my recovery afterward. My body image at that moment was still the one I had of myself at age twenty-two, exercising like a freak, learning photography, and being unconditionally narcissistic.
But in that room—484 days, thirteen hours and thirty-three minutes after the accident—my body image was, and continues to be, existentially altered. I no longer was Hercules. I am a modified Achilles, who has somehow survived his crippling blow. But the farther I get from that tragic day, the less dismembered and disabled I feel—and the more modified for bionic optimization I have become.
But what about the poor folks in the lodge? All those horribly injured souls. I felt that the majority of them considered themselves regular Joes and Josephines as much as I did, and I felt an out-of-body empathy for everyone else in the room. A room full of immortal Achilleses, back from the dead, wounds perpetually healing and psyches happily suspended somewhere between the way they were before, the way they felt the day their lives were remarkably altered, and their realization of the astonishingly adaptive and compassionate people they’ve become.
Hey, wait, what about the race?
So there I was in the lodge, projecting myself past all these kind but injured folk right up to wearing the gold medal on the podium in the winner’s circle. Then came the announcement … “Racers, good luck; and please now head up to the course.” Well, up on the mountain, my empathy for these poor people was modified, too. As racer after racer whipped through the gates, my presumptuous pride shrunk like a Polar Bear Club member’s member shrinks in a winter’s frozen lake. And I, like an uninjured Achilles, was about to get cut down to size.
In my first-ever adaptive race, I left the starting gate feeling very unprepared for that first turn. But after a very slow start, I began to find my rhythm. I navigated the start of the second of my two tournament runs with ease, and nearly split my time in half. I was adapting. Just as I’d done during my two months of recovery in the hospital, my return to home and family life, and my pursuit of the very real mountain of goals I’ve laid out for myself.
So, sitting back in the lodge, lunching and congratulating the racers for their yeomen’s efforts on the course … imagine my Kafkaesque shock when I heard my name being called to the medals podium.
It’s true—miraculously … or not—I had taken bronze in the men’s open division. Neither gold, nor last, but somewhere in the middle. What a great metaphor for my life, right here, right now. Somewhere in the middle, walking briskly and steadily from near-death to euphoria.
I wore that bronze medal for a week. Thank God the folks at work already consider me an enigma shrouded in dismembered manic mystery. That’s just the way I like it.
Next Event: Making Limbonade
Photo courtesy of the author