Monday, February 28, 2011

California amputee makes a name as a snowboarder

From The Union in Nevada City:

“Because I can.” That's why Evan Strong (pictured), a Maui kid with one and a half legs, wanted to learn to snowboard just more than four years ago.

The statement rings of George Mallory, the British climber who, more than 90 years ago, told a New York Times reporter he wanted to climb Mt. Everest “because it's there.”

But Strong utters the phrase with a sense of wonder, rather than of defiance.

The 24-year-old, who now makes his home in Nevada City, wants to do everything he can because he's blessed just to be here, much less able to ride a board of any type.

A horrific motorcycle accident took the lower half of his left leg more than six years ago, and kicked off a period of rehabilitation and discovery that led him close to the pinnacle of snowboarding success: A recent X-Games boardercross victory.

“A couple years into my recovery, I was skateboarding and was like, ‘Wow, I'm able,'” Strong said. “I had the

perspective like, what I had was so valuable. I'm so blessed to even go out and roll around on my skateboard, and I have to snowboard just because I can.”

“I'm not OK.”

That's what Strong thought in November, 2004, after a driver crashed into his motorcycle on his home island of Maui in Hawaii.

Strong, then 17, said he was on his way home from work when a woman driving while lighting a cigarette ducked behind her dashboard to do so.

She drifted out of her lane on a curve into Strong's oncoming lane and crashed head-on into his bike, flinging him alongside a guardrail on the road.

Strong, a sponsored, professional skateboarder at the time, felt his helmet bounce off of the road on his way down. He glanced down at his body — noticing the accident bent his left leg over the top of his chest. The leg was fractured in multiple places, including the femur.

“That's when the pain and shock started to hit me,” Strong said.

A practitioner of meditation, Strong receded into his mind to block out the pain, until a passerby shook him conscious.

“Somebody hit me because I was laying there with my eyes shut, looking like I was dead,” Strong said. “That's when I pulled back into my body and screamed at her. ‘Why did you do that? You just pulled me back into this broken body.' But they wanted to make sure I wasn't going to fall asleep.”

Thanks to a good Samaritan — a woman returning from a Laundromat who packed Strong's wounds with her freshly done laundry — he was driven via ambulance to a Maui hospital and flown to Oahu for intensive treatment.

There, Dr. Patrick Murray, a veteran of trauma medicine during the Vietnam War, amputated Strong's leg below the knee. At that point, Strong went into recovery and rehabilitation mode, a long, arduous process where he had to relearn how to do everything.

Early in his recovery, while still at the hospital in Oahu, a male physical therapist asked Strong to try to stand on one leg. Weary from drugs and surgery, he declined. His mother then chimed in on the encouragement.

“Because of the drugs and fatigue, I had a bad attitude and kind of snapped at her,” Strong said. “My physical therapist didn't yell at me, but said ‘Don't you ever talk to your parents like that again.' As soon as he gave me that tough love, I knew I couldn't regress to that place.”

Strong harnessed a positive attitude from that point forward — and hopped on a skateboard as soon as he was home in Maui a month later.

“The first time I got on a skateboard was the day I got back from Oahu,” Strong said. “I went to see a friend at the skatepark and asked him to use his board. I stood on it with one leg and used my crutches to push me along.”

Intensive rehab ensued once Strong returned to Maui. He spent the first year or so on crutches before being fitted for a prosthetic.

“You get strong arms,” Strong said. “I could walk around on my crutches without even using my leg. You adapt. The greatest quality in a species is adaptability.”

It was a painful time for Strong, though. Blood would pool in his stump, causing severe pain that required him to lay on his back to even it out.

“I always had a very clear vision of where I wanted to go, but I didn't know how to get there,” he said. “Of course there were times of frustration, when I thought, ‘If I have to lay here for another day, I'm going to freak out.'”

But, aided by a new attitude and a new diet, Strong put the pieces back together.

“Heat destroys vitamins, minerals and enzymes, so I didn't want to eat cooked food,” Strong said. “I had a goal to be able to do things with a prosthetic that would take a lot of strength, so I was going to eat as many raw foods as possible.

“I was doing big juices every day and eating all these whole foods, and I started to feel more energized. I was more willing to go to physical therapy, work harder and feel good, and enjoy the process of recovery.”

Strapping in
Four years ago, Strong visited an uncle in Sun Valley, Idaho, and announced his intent to learn to snowboard.

“He put me on the bunny hill, and by my second day, I was doing black diamond runs,” Strong said. “I was thinking that this is the most amputee-friendly sport out there. I turn my body, and my board turns. Plus it was huge to have that edge control.”

Strong parlayed that instant attraction to the sport into seasons spent living, working, and riding at Truckee's Northstar-at-Tahoe resort. He started competing three years ago, and in January won X-Games gold at Aspen, Colo. in boardercross, a downhill free-for-all where four to six riders drop in on a course full of jumps and obstacles.

The first one to the bottom wins. Shortly after winning in the Rockies, Strong traveled to France and won two World Cup races.

This weekend, Strong plans to race at South Lake Tahoe's Sierra-at-Tahoe resort, taking on able-bodied athletes in boardercross, an event he won last year.

“Evan is one of the most motivated athletes I know to achieve for himself, but he's equally motivated to succeed for others,” said Daniel Gale, the founder of Adaptive Action Sports, a South Lake Tahoe non-profit that organizes action sports events for disabled athletes.

Strong rides for AAS, and helps runs camps teaching disabled war veterans and disabled children how to snowboard.

“It's been a very filling blessing in my life that I get to pay it forward,” Strong said. “From the worst thing that ever happened to me, came the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Teaching disabled people how to strap into a snowboard and drop down on an exposed slope is secondary to Strong's goal, he said.

“I'm more helping people to change their belief system,” Strong said. “It's possible to be what you want to be, to have a new vision and a new goal.”

Working with military veterans gives Strong a special pleasure, he added.

“They eat this stuff up. They view it as another challenge,” Strong said. “They are tough as nails, and you give them this new challenge of battling it out on snowboards. It's what they're made for. It fills my cup.”

Strong spreads his message through his riding, too. Gale is working to get the adaptive boardercross race televised at next year's X-Games, as well as getting it added to the 2014 Winter Paraylmpics roster in Sochi, Russia.

“We can change the landscape for the general adaptive community,” Gale said. “It's going to be part of the sports landscape, whether people like it or not.”

Strong's athletic goal is a berth at Sochi, to show the world what disabled athletes can do.

“I want to show that it can be done,” Strong said. “If there's a disabled kid out there, if they want to be the next (pro snowboarder) Nate Holland or Shaun White, in this day and age, that's a possibility.”