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Friday, August 1, 2008

By Brian Kamenetzky

Like any 21 year old at his first X Games, Evan Strong was intimidated standing on the deck of the brand new SuperPark during an official practice session Thursday afternoon at Home Depot Center, surrounded by some of the greatest park and pipe riders on the planet—including his personal favorite, Omar Hassan. Like many first time X Gamers, when he dropped down the steep sides and into the tight bowls, he wasn't quite rolling with the same speed or pulling the same tricks with the same style as the rest of the guys in the session.
Shane Tacker, who was hit on his motorcycle by a car in 2005, uses a prosthesis for day-to-day activities, but prefers to race without it.

There was, however, one important difference between Strong and the skating royalty that surrounded him: the prosthetic leg poking up from his left shoe into his baggy-short covered left knee.

An obstacle? Yes. Large enough to keep Strong out of the park, even one occupied by Hassan? Hardly.

"I have to play as hard as he plays, if I want to play."

In 1995, Chris Ridgway was, like a lot of young professional motocross racers, spending himself silly and riding through a seemingly endless series of injuries all in an effort to stay on his bike when he suffered a horrendous crash that literally crushed his lower legs inside his racing boots. Ridgway spent the next few years in a battle against pain and painkillers, struggling to walk, but always finding ways to get back on his bike and race, even if it meant rolling up to and leaving the track in a wheelchair.

Then in 1999 at a race in Phoenix, Ridgway had an epiphany.

"I saw a guy in the parking lot working for Budweiser, with a keg of beer over his shoulder, missing a leg and using a prosthesis. My friend was like, 'Ridge, you need to get one of those.' And it hit me that he was right, because the guy was walking better than I had in years."

It took Ridgway two years to find a doctor willing to amputate his lower left leg, doing so only after Ridgway threatened to do the job himself in a manner no medical journal would advocate. The doctor convinced Ridgway to let him take one more crack at repairing the injuries, but it didn't take, and soon Ridgway's lower leg was gone and his life was back.
Chris Ridgway, proving that love (in this case, love of sport) truly does conquer all.

Three months later, he was walking on a prosthesis. He quit the Vicodin cold turkey. Three months after that, Ridgway was back on a bike, motivated by exactly the same concern that drove him as a young pro—that someone might be faster.

Ridgway and Strong are just two of the athletes who will compete Friday afternoon in a pair of events making their X Games debut—Moto X Racing Adaptive and Skateboard SuperPark—which will build on the success of Winter X's MonoSkier X competition and expand opportunities for disabled athletes at X Games into summer. Where the disabled have long participated in mainstream sports—the Paralympics extend back to 1960, adaptive cycling and racing are common, as are tennis and basketball leagues, just to name a few—the same can't be said for action sports.
"Some of the bigger organizations that get kids or anyone with disabilities into sports push them into alpine skiing, they push them into cycling, they push them into running and swimming," notes Daniel Gale, co-founder and executive director of Adaptive Action Sports (AAS), who with help from the Extremity Games and ESPN helped bring the adaptive comps to this year's X Games. "All these kids, their peer group, that's not what they're doing. They're doing what Shaun White's doing."

Gale, along with co-founder Amy Purdy, started AAS as something of a community bulletin and chat board for disabled action sports athletes. "As we got more into it," Gale says, "people were coming out of the woodwork. We realized it needed to be more than just a communication bridge." They formed a skate team and barnstormed around the country. "The more public awareness we raise, the more athletes we find."

They are amateur skaters like Oscar Loreto, born with a congenital birth defect that left him without his left foot, left entire hand, and four fingers of his right, or former aspiring pros, like Ridgway, Strong, and Ranel Cox, who was paralyzed in a moto race in 2003. For many of them, expectations have had to be recalibrated, but the love of their sport is fundamentally the same.
Drew Lacko, who was paralyzed from the waist down in 2004 during practice for a race, says he rides better now than he did before the accident.

"Just loading up the trailer with your friends, going out to the desert and riding, that's the main thing," Cox says.

The sports are tweaked to fit the disabilities. Automatic shifters, automatic clutches, hand brakes, and bars to help secure the legs of paralyzed riders are common in the moto event, depending on the athlete's needs. Watching them ride, you see subtle differences. Obviously, some racers can't stand going over the bumps. A race boot runs up Ridgway's right leg, while a Nike running shoe covers his prosthetic foot. Whether racing or riding, many have to relearn skills that were once no less normal than breathing.

"You have to trust the ground beneath you that you can't feel," Strong says. "Skateboarding is all about feeling your skateboard. And if you can't, you have to trust that it's there. Sometimes it's not, and you fall."

But don't confuse the joy these athletes take in being able to compete as a request for sympathy. They don't want, nor do they need, the pity clap, and their competitive juices still flow freely. With virtually no other all-disabled races in which to compete, Ridgway and other racers regularly match up against the able bodied. Strong does the same thing in the park, and as an avid downhill mountain biker. Along the way, these athletes inspire the disabled and able bodied alike, taking particular pride in helping motivate people in similar situations as themselves.

"I have a friend who was fifteen, and was just paralyzed in a car accident," says Cox. "The only thing that's kept him sane is that he knows that one day he'll be able to ride like I ride, and that motocross wasn't taken away from him. That means everything."

Ultimately, though, they compete for the same reasons all of us do: For the challenge of pushing through our limitations, of overcoming obstacles—whether an opponent, an amputation, paralysis, or perhaps a combination of all three—and to ultimately prevail.

"I still want to win," Ridgway says. "I like to help people a lot, but I still want to win. It'll hurt me for a year if I lose this race."