Paralympic snowboarders with varying disabilities are all equal on slopes

As snowboarding makes its Paralympic debut, athletes make different adjustments to compete under the same rules

U.S. Paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy swaps her prosthetic legs as she prepares for a training session.
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

When snowboarding makes its Paralympic debut on Friday, the lone event will be snowboard cross. Typically, it’s a rollicking race in which riders slingshot around banked turns and soar over jumps shoulder to shoulder.

Not so at the Paralympics in Sochi.

Unlike at the Olympics and Winter X Games, Paralympic snowboarders will compete one at a time. Their fastest two (of three) runs will be added, and the winner will be the one with the lowest combined time.

Participation will include all athletes with lower-limb impairments. And while the absence of two strong legs and the full knee and ankle flexion to navigate the ever-changing terrain might seem like the greatest impediments to speed, the classification includes a full range of impairments, with the most athletes and greatest depth of talent at the moment.

And unlike other Paralympic races, snowboarders will not receive time adjustments based on their level of impairment. It doesn’t matter how high the amputation or how many legs are affected; all the snowboarders in Sochi will be considered equal, which makes for an interesting look at what the athletes with such varied disabilities do to adapt and compete.

“It’s a young sport,” said Amy Purdy, a 2012 world championship silver medalist. “It’s hard for the officials to figure out, how impaired are we, really? Being a double-leg versus a single-leg, being above-the-knee [amputee]? We just don’t know right now how capable we all are. We’re just really excited to race.”

Eventually the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) will collect enough data to quantify the effect particular disabilities have on performance and find mathematical ways to minimize their impact.

Bibian Mentel, 41, from the Netherlands, has been dominating the sport. The below-the-knee amputee has won every race this season. Purdy and her teammate Heidi Jo Duce, 23, are also threats. Each has been on the medal podium five times in the last eight races.

The U.S. men swept the medals once this year, led by Mike Shea (who has won five of eight races this season), 2012 world champion Evan Strong and 2012 Winter X Games champion Keith Gabel.

Of those competitors, all except Duce were avid snowboarders before becoming disabled. 

Making adjustments

Most have maintained their goofy- or regular-foot stance as an adaptive rider, regardless of which leg is prosthetic.

“You’d think you’d want the strongest leg in front,” said U.S. Paralympic coach Miah Wheeler. “But you don’t really have a choice. It’s like being right-handed or left-handed.” (Gabel, for example, rides with his prosthetic in front.)

Still, most Paralympic snowboarders will tweak their equipment to compensate for imbalances or misalignments.

“I was born with my disability, and I’m bowlegged,” Duce said. “So when I crouch in that really good aggressive stance, I have a hard time bending past a certain point without breaking at my waist.”

So Duce adds a one-inch cant outside her right (rear) foot and inserts a quarter-inch foam wedge inside her right boot to raise her heel.

“By canting my [prosthetic] knee in,” she said, “it lets me get lower while keeping my body stacked up above my board.”

Gabel, 29, uses a foam pipe insulator to fill out his boot where his prosthetic is the narrowest so it will make more contact with his boot, which makes his board more responsive and quicker to react. He also wears an extra-stiff foot to withstand high impact.

It’s built “for someone the size of Shaquille O’Neal,” Gabel said of his new foot, which is actually made to withstand more than 380 pounds, more than twice his weight. The reason for the extra strength is clear. Before the Sochi test event last March, Gabel broke yet another $10,000 snowboarding foot, this time while guiding his roommate, a visually impaired freerider and landing a 65-foot jump at high speed. Gabel knew a new foot would never be ready in time to compete.

“I’m a workman’s comp case,” he explained, referring to an on-the-job accident nearly nine years ago in which 2,000 pounds of hydraulic pressure crushed his left foot for more than 15 minutes.  

The warranty had expired on the snowboarding foot he broke. At the last minute, Gabel found a company to rush him a replacement. He took bronze at the test event and has been using the high-impact foot ever since.

From slopes to dance floor

The rider who has had to improvise the most, perhaps, is Purdy, who became a double below-the-knee amputee after contracting severe bacterial meningitis in 1999. Riding with two prostheses is doubly challenging.

“So I use a lot of duct tape,” she said. “I also use wood wedges that help you get up on your toes a little bit, help you bend your knees. I also use my hips a lot. It’s really interesting — I don’t necessarily snowboard with my feet. I more snowboard with my knees and hips.”

This week in Sochi, Purdy has also been MacGyvering her dancing legs while learning the cha-cha with her TV dance partner, Derek Hough, for the “Dancing with the Stars” premiere on Monday night.

Whether Purdy will have a separate category in a Paralympics remains to be seen.

Opinions varied on whether to divide the lower-limb category into smaller classifications.

Gabel said he would be game for anything, as long as it’s fair.

“If they tell me you’re racing with this [diverse] group, I’ll accept it,” he said. “If they decide to break it up, I’ll accept that as well.”

Duce, a below-the-knee amputee, said she would like to see a factoring system consider above-the-knee amputees.

“It would give them a little more of a shot — and we could have harder courses,” she said. “One of my best friends is an above-the knee amputee, and having a knee when you snowboard outweighs the importance of having one or even two feet. I see A.K.s [above-the-knees] struggle because they don’t have the knee to absorb certain technical features and jumps — and that’s the essence of boardercross.

Currently, Duce said, “we don’t get to see the technical features as much because courses have to be built to consider that extra time it’s going to take an above-the-knee amputee to deal with a feature.

“If they were able to factor in that time in the beginning, we could have harder courses. And in that way, we could progress the sport and really show what adaptive athletes can do on a boardercross course.”

“Maybe it would even the playing field a little bit,” said Purdy, the only double-leg amputee in the international field. “But I kind of like the way we’re doing it now, which is everybody all together.”

“There needs to be more double-leg amputee snowboarders in the first place, before they would even make a category,” Purdy added. “So if you know any, send ’em our way.”

Room to grow

It’s already starting to happen.

“Now that people see [snowboarding is] in the Paralympics, I get 10 to 20 emails a week saying, ‘How can I get involved in this?’” coach Wheeler said. “A lot of guys never knew it was an option. And it’s across the board. It’s [people with] cerebral palsy. It can be partial paralysis, any possible disability.”

Future Paralympic Winter Games might even include halfpipe and slopestyle.

“Our top three boys are amazing freestyle riders. They get the biggest jumps. They’ll do flips,” Wheeler said of Strong, Shea and Gabel. “There’s maybe 10 people in the world who can do that. But in five or six years? Absolutely, we’ll see it.”

Coaching adaptive riders, he said, isn’t much different from coaching the able-bodied.

“You’ve got to get the alignment first,” said Wheeler, who has been teaching for 20 years. “You’ve got to take into account all the angles and find how you can make it so their body’s in a functional position. We might build the foundation more than I would with the able-bodied person, but once we have it, it’s there.

“Good snowboarding is good snowboarding.”

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