ASPEN, Colo. -- One year ago, Josh Dueck arrived at the Winter X Games an unknown rookie, then proceeded to win a gold medal in Mono Skier X by a whopping 10 seconds.
A former freestyle skier and coach of two-time Winter X Games gold medalist TJ Schiller, Dueck's fame ballooned even more last fall when a documentary film called "The Freedom Chair," which won Best Documentary at the Powder Video Awards earlier this week, showed him soaring over road gaps and dropping cliffs on his mono ski into deep powder. With Dueck back to defend his gold medal Sunday, one of the most inspiring athletes at Winter X Games Aspen will again point his sit-ski down the rowdy X Course and use his speed to spread a message worth hearing.
"Stay true to your dreams and what you really love to do, because prior to my accident, I wanted to be a professional skier, I wanted to come to the X Games, I wanted to go to the Olympics, but I never really had that confidence or belief in myself," Dueck said after practice Thursday. "Which kind of created a bit of an insecurity that resulted in me doing some [ill-advised] moves, which was exactly what I was doing when I broke my back. I was kind of showing off and skiing way outside of my comfort zone, and now the confidence is there, the belief is there, I know what I want, and I move in small increments, right?"
The irony of Dueck becoming more famous as a sit-skier than he was as an able-bodied skier is not lost on the 31-year-old from Vernon, British Columbia. In addition to traveling around the world to race in competitions from the Paralympics to NorAms to the Winter X Games, he also makes a living as a motivational speaker for schools and businesses. After "The Freedom Chair" played at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, he was mobbed everywhere he went.
Even here in Aspen, Dueck said, "A lot of my peers, skiers, snowboarders, halfpipe, slopestyle, skiercross, you name it, just a lot of people I've looked up to for a long time and have inspired me, it's kind of crazy to see roles reversed when they see that film, and in turn I can inspire them."
Despite his talent as a racer, Dueck maintains that his heart belongs in the backcountry, which is also where his skiing is most impressive. "That recharges my soul, because I ain't gonna lie, it's pretty heavy having a spinal cord injury and trying to get around in a wheelchair," he said. "There's a lot of deficits that I face but I try not to focus on them too much. We all face challenges, it's how you respond to them that defines your character."
As he attempts to win his second straight gold medal, Dueck's primary hope is that the collective field puts on a better show. Last year, every skier in the final except Dueck crashed coming out of the starting gate and struggled to get up for the rest of the run, leading to his runaway win. This year, he expects a better showing overall, especially from Kevin Bramble, John Davis and fellow British Columbia freerider Sam Danniels.
"I can almost guarantee it's going to be tighter," Dueck said. "Last year was super disappointing because as a field of athletes, we have a lot more potential than what we showed. They've actually made some adaptations to the course this year, given it a little more flow and fluidity. It should allow all the riders to go that much faster. He with the smartest tactics and the biggest cojones should be the champion."