Paralympians set up shop at Big White
Michelle Salt is the exception, says her coach Candice Drouin of the Snowboard Canada paralympic team.
Exceptional, extraordinary, almost unbelievable might be how anyone else hearing her story might put it. Two-and-a-half years after she lost her right leg—and broke her pelvis and hips, acquired multiple compound fractures while severing her femoral artery, nearly causing her to bleed out on an Alberta highway—she's queuing up to take on the world as a paralympic snowboarder.
"When I was told about my leg, I definitely had my moment of sadness; but it was pretty quickly after that I decided I wanted to be a paralympian," she said, while training at Aspire Gym in Kelowna.
Aspire is one of several venues helping the first para-snowboard Olympic hopefuls supplement their training time on Big White in preparation for the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
Big White is ground zero for the Canadian paralympic snowboard team and they've already spent several weeks on the hill gearing up for an epic year in the sport. This is the first paralympic games for snowboarding.
In early December, they put in a heavy duty training session, working multiple days on snow and in the gym to make their dreams of taking an Olympic podium come true.
After taking a break for Christmas, they returned to the hill January 5 to prepare for a string of World Cup events, including the one held last weekend.
January 25 and 26 saw the Para-Snowboard World Cup Boardercross hit the Telus Park and Salt was among those competing and waiting to see if her name was called as one of Canada's Paralympic team.
"The accident was the best thing that ever happened to me," she said as she started spinning on a stationary bike, warming up so she could start lifting the weights she needed to build and rebuild her body.
Old Michelle, as she refers to her, was a fitness model by trade and that's likely what saved her life. Her physical conditioning kept her heart strong enough to continue beating even as blood poured from her body.
She was pretty and pretty superficial, Salt explained. And that's about as much as she cared to elaborate on her former self. A mild brain injury has left her with the ability to remember her life history and what she learned from it, but she has no emotional connection to her former self—and she doesn't seem to mind.
This new woman made the call from her hospital bed to the paralympic team to find out what it would take to put herself in the running. With an above-the-knee amputation, she wasn't a likely candidate for snowboarding, but that obviously didn't slow her down.
Her teammate, John Leslie, has an entirely different nature. Where Salt sidelines a full-time job doing business development for an oil and gas company, at 21 years old Leslie is slowly logging time and investment in a small-town Home Hardware store. His goal is to own it by the time he is 40 years old.
He wants a family and a quiet life with friends in Arnprior, Ontario. Making it onto the paralympic team wasn't even his own vision, he said.
Leslie lost a portion of his leg to osteosarcoma at 11 years old—the same cancer as Terry Fox. His surgeons amputated a portion of his leg from just above his knee—what's referred to as the distal femur—to the proximal tibia—just above his foot—then reattached his foot to his leg, placing it backward so it acts as a knee joint. The surgery is called a Van Ness rotationplasty and it's left him with a very functional leg and prosthetic.
"It's the muscles that move my knee that now move my foot. So I would think, move my knee and feel it in my foot," Leslie said as he tried to explain how he relearned to walk.
It sounds confusing, but after working through his therapy, he managed to join the ski and snowboard team in high school and start racking up wins.
When a new coach arrived in his senior year, she was so impressed with his athletic prowess she started grilling him on the route he would take next, never even realizing his one leg was a prosthetic. He explained to her that he felt this was the end of the line for him in snowboarding and she quite quickly pointed him in the direction of the paralympic training team and Coach Drouin.
In 2011, straight out of high school, he went to the Para-Snowboard Cross World Cup and placed fifth, beating out every Canadian, including Tyler Mosher, a pioneer in the sport. He hasn't looked back.
"I'm enjoying the whole experience, not only as an athlete, but as a person," he said of this lead up to the Olympics.
Ian Lockey is also soaking it in, though for different reasons. Now 40 years old, he stands among those who blazed the trail Leslie is following and he is a daredevil through and through.
Unlike Leslie, he has already built his life around his passions: snowboarding and mountain biking.
Operating out of Red Mountain, the same hill legendary Olympian Nancy Greene came out of, Lockey runs a mountain bike shuttle service, Kootenay Mountain Shuttle, and touring operation, Kootenay Mountain Bike Coaching, and manages The Red Shutter Inn in Rossland.
His quest for an Olympic run has been long and expensive.
Originally from New Zealand, he started coming to B.C. to snowboard In 1995 and three years later he broke his back, leaving him 50 per cent paralyzed from the waist down.
In practical terms, it means he has no calf muscles, no hamstrings and reduced gluteus maximus functioning.
"Doctors told me I would never walk again," he said. "I decided that was not acceptable."
With a "massive dose of stubbornness" he managed to make it back out onto the mountain, but snowboarding was not a paralympic option.
The Para-Snowboarding program began in Canada in 2006 with athlete development camps, Para-Snowboard competitions and coach training. The first Para-Snowboard World Cup was held in Whistler in 2008 and Sochi will be the first Paralympic event, though it is only for those with lower limb impairment.
Lockey pre-exited all of this. He went to the first major event, the U.S. Nationals in 2007, which had an adaptive class with five athletes and walked away with the competition. From slope-style to boardercross, half-pipe to slalom and giant slalom, he won them all.
His motto is that lightening never strikes twice and he leaves everything he has on the hill. The words "are you breathing in and out" are tattooed on his forearm, a reminder that fear is a flight or fight response he doesn't need to bother with.
This year's first ever paralympians were named Sunday.
All had already climbed a mountain higher than hill any Olympian could ski. As their coach sees it, that's what makes this sport so fun. Every day that she comes to work she watches people adapt and learn to adapt to a set of circumstances completely their own.
The paralympics run March 7 to 16 in Sochi, Russia.