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Sunday, January 10, 2010
Updated: January 26, 4:18 PM ET
Can SnoCross Adapt?

By Eugene Buchanan
ESPN Action Sports

Mike Schultz, the prohibitive favorite.

When the first-ever Adaptive SnoCross is held in Aspen at Winter X 14, it will be the third X Games competition designed for disabled action sports athletes. Mono Skier X, which became a full medal event in 2007, was the first. Last summer saw Super X Adaptive (motocross) gain medal status as well. While all three are distinct, they share important traits not just with each other but with every X Games competition -- specifically, they require a delicate balance of skill, courage and showmanship.

"Every year we have our eyes and ears open for new additions to the Games, and these adaptive events fit perfectly," says Tim Reed, ESPN director of sports and competition. "They're what the Games are all about."

Unlike its predecessors, Adaptive SnoCross will be a full medal event in its inaugural year. "It helps that we did adaptive motocross in the summer," says Reed. "It was born out of that event and is a perfect fit for what we already have in place."

The event will take place on the same course as the regular SnoCross. Because an adaptive snowmobile race has never been run before, the field is expected to be large enough for only one six-man heat, which will compete in a six-lap final between the SnoCross last-chance qualifier and final.

Doug Henry, pre-injury, at XG12.

"We'll work with the riders beforehand to make sure it's a level playing field," says event organizer Joe Duncan. As at last summer's X Games, where racers like Kevin Windham and Karl Vass rode with adaptive competitors beforehand to help them learn the course, able-bodied SnoCross racers will also be on hand to help their adaptive counterparts. "They all know each other," says Duncan. "They look forward to helping each other out."

To say that Mike Schultz is the event favorite would be an understatement. The 28-year-old from Pillager, Minn., is a former snocross standout who, in December of 2008, lost his left leg above the knee after severing an artery in a crash at an ISOC race in Ironwood, Mich. Schultz has five Winter X SnoCross starts to his credit, with his highest finish a ninth in 2008. He also has five podiums on the national snocross series.

In addition to his snocross experience, Schultz competed in last summer's Super X Adaptive. He took silver behind Chris Ridgway and is keen to go for gold in the sport he knows best. "I had to make a couple of modifications to my machine, like building a foot box so my foot can move back and forth, but I'm really looking forward to it." He's also looking forward to testing a self-designed knee joint. "It's the ticket for racing," he says. "Hopefully I'll get it to the point where other racers can start using it also."

Unlike the factoring systems used in Paralympics competition, which level the playing field between competitors with a wide range of disabilities, Adaptive SnoCross will pit athletes with different disabilities directly against each other. That gives Schultz a decided advantage over another high-profile competitor, Doug Henry.

This gives all of us a second life, a chance to be reborn as athletes.

--Doug Henry

>Henry's a four-time AMA motocross champion who won the 2005 X Games SuperMoto. He crashed while practicing for a supermoto race in March 2007, and became a T12 paraplegic. Henry had some snocross experience prior to his injury, but harbors no illusions about what he's up against. "Being an amputee [like Schultz] offers an advantage," says the 40-year-old from Torrington, Conn. "You can stand up [on prostheses] to absorb impacts." To compensate, Henry modified the seat on his machine to give it more travel. He'll also strap his hips in so he doesn't fall off. "Without having legs for suspension you have to improvise," he says.

When soaring 60 feet off a jump, however, even amputees have issues. While Schultz is banking on his boot box, others employ different approaches. "I've tried boot boxes, and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't," says racer Jim Wazny, 39, an above-knee amputee from Merrill, Mich.

The problem is the forces involved. "My right leg has to do all the shock absorption," adds Wazny, who's constantly experimenting with how to keep his left leg attached. "I've bent the titanium, exploded the carbon fiber, and have had it completely fall off during races." When that happens, he shakes his prosthesis loose and continues on. "You do what you need to in the heat of the moment," he says. Now he relies on "Old Faithful," a bungee cord that keeps his prosthesis in place.

Above-the-knee amputee Poplawski knows his way around a sled.

Like Henry, Wazny comes to adaptive snocross from a motocross background. A rider long before he crashed into a bulldozer in 2000, leading to the amputation of his left leg, he took fourth in last summer's Super X Adaptive. "But throwing a 450-pound snowmobile around is a lot different than a 250-pound motorcycle," he says.

Even with his disability, Wazny has raced semipro and pro-vet snocross classes in Michigan since 2003. He took a demo lap around last winter's SnoCross course and knows he'll have his work cut out for him to beat the likes of Schultz, Henry and Jeff Tweet (a mechanic for Tucker Hibbert's Arctic Cat team). "They're all great riders," he says. "I'll need to be on my A-game. And the course will be bigger than what I'm used to."

The prevailing wisdom is that it's Schultz's race to lose. "I don't see how anyone would beat him," says Utah's E.J. Poplawski, a former big-mountain telemarker who lost his right leg above the knee after skiing into a tree at the Crested Butte Extremes. "Unless someone takes him off the track or drives him into a berm, I imagine he's winning unless something goes wrong."

Adaptive events don't just embody the X Games ethic -- they have an audience. At last year's Winter X Games, Mono Skier X aired live on the Sunday broadcast, which earned a healthy 1.0 rating (that evening's broadcast, with a 1.3 rating, was the most-viewed Winter X Games ever). This winter, the plan is to run Adaptive SnoCross and Mono Skier X in that same time slot.

"Adaptive events are unique to what people usually see on TV," says Reed. "It's super inspiring to watch athletes with disabilities perform at this level, and ratingwise they're comparable to all our other events."

Mono Skier X has developed an audience at Winter X.

But the ratings story pales in comparison to what the event means for the athletes. "ESPN is showing these athletes' abilities, not their disabilities," says Kevin Jardine, director of competition for Challenge Aspen, a nonprofit serving the needs of adaptive athletes. "The X Games are showing that these guys are athletes pushing the limits of what's possible just like anyone else. SnoCross will be a great addition."

Adaptive competitors welcome the opportunity to showcase their athleticism. "Events like this give people an opportunity to better understand what we do," says Kevin Bramble, a Mono Skier X competitor who's contemplating making the jump to snocross. "There aren't too many opportunities like that, especially in winter."

More importantly, events like Adaptive SnoCross let athletes compete against their peers at the highest level of the sport. "Having another adaptive event like this in the Games is huge," says Henry. "Most of the guys competing at this level got hurt in some sort of extreme event. This gives all of us a second life, a chance to be reborn as athletes."