BY AIMEE BERG I APRIL 23, 2013
When snowboardcross debuts at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, it will have none of the usual mayhem. Instead of a mass start, one racer at a time will navigate wild turns and multiple jumps. The athlete with the fastest two (of three) runs will be the winner. And, unlike most Paralympic disciplines which have events for athletes with a variety of physical limitations, there will only be one division: athletes with lower limb impairments.
That means some top riders with upper limb impairments are ineligible to compete, but it’s a start. Snowboarding has never been in the Paralympic Winter Games. In fact, it was added to the program as a discipline of alpine skiing less than a year ago, in May 2012.
It’s progress. And at least one American rider knows that – in sport and in life – incremental changes should never be underestimated.
Mike Shea, 29, placed second at the Sochi test event last month. He also won a World Cup race in March and is considered to be a strong contender to make the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team. But, until recently, he didn’t even realize that amputees like himself competed in sports.
The story of how he lost his limb, lost his way, and later ascended toward the pinnacle of athletic achievement is most compellingly told in his own words.
“Castaic Lake is the lake I grew up on. It’s just north of LA. It was September 2002, and my friends and I were wakeboarding and heading to the other side of the lake for better water. I was sitting on the railing of the boat when we hit a big cross-wave. As I went overboard, my foot I must have scooped up a rope on the deck, and when I was in the water I felt it around my neck, my shoulder and my arm. I knew the rope would eventually tense up so I did whatever I could to unravel it from my body, but it cinched around my knee and tightened around my left ankle. It was instant amputation. I treaded water knowing something wasn’t right – but then I saw blood-red lake water for 15 yards all around me. I pulled my leg out of the water. My Achilles was like a bungee cord. I thought: Where is the rest of my foot?
I was 19 and in high school. I screamed at the top of my lungs. We all freaked out. A friend grabbed a towel and couple of wetsuits and tied it around my knee. I was on the swim deck. I almost fell out again. We called 911 several times and it didn’t go through. A lifeguard boat took me back to the dock.
At the local hospital, I was waiting in the hallway for eight hours. They couldn’t find a surgeon. They wanted to take me to UCLA Medical Center but I guess there was a bomb threat there, so it had shut down. My dad’s an LAPD officer, so he called in a favor and got a search and rescue helicopter – a huge, massive double-bladed helicopter – and they transported me to USC hospital. I knew deep down my leg was gone.
I remember waking up in a glass room. When I first looked down and saw my leg missing, I was in denial for the first several hours, but I wasn’t disappointed. I was still alive. I put a smile on my face. They all said, ‘You’re staying so positive.’ I spent two days in that glass room.
I didn’t know anyone else who was disabled or injured. I didn’t know what opportunities I’d have. I didn’t think I’d have options. For all I knew, I was doing this for the first time and no one had ever done this.
I started figuring things out on my own.
Days before the accident, I wasn’t doing well. I was drinking on a nightly basis. It started in high school as a peer thing. I kept it away from my family. I was a bad kid. Just before accident, I had separated myself from my family. I wasn’t doing well in school. I was at my deepest depths. The accident sort of woke me up.
But after the accident, I turned to prescription painkillers. The first year or so, I was not in tremendous pain so I didn’t need them, but it turned into dependency and the dependency fed the addiction.
Before I knew it, I was back in the same position as I was before the accident: struggling with addiction. In 2005 or 2006 I admitted myself to the Tarzana Treatment Center in LA. I spent two weeks in detox and did outpatient rehab after that.
I was clean for one month and got back into drugs. It’s a physical dependency and a constant battle. The drugs work with opiate receptors in your brain. You don’t feel normal without them.
After I relapsed, I went to rehab in Pasadena, Las Encinas. It was very different. The place I’d gone before had a lot of court-ordered drug addicts – people that didn’t want to be there.
In Pasadena, Dr. Drew Pinsky was my doctor. I also had good psychologists and therapists. I was the only amputee but we all shared similar struggles. I was there about one month. They truly gave me all the tools to live a clean life but I didn’t come to the conclusion that I wanted to live like that. I relapsed several times within a short period.
Without meds, I had to deal with emotions I never felt all those years. I had always masked symptoms of losing my leg with a fake smile, so that’s why I went back to it
I finally came out of a haze in 2007. I realized I wanted to live clean and sober. But I had nothing to do and I knew I had to fill the time if I wanted to stay clean. One weekend, I was building a doghouse for my new puppy and – me being an addict – I threw my addiction into positive things. Before I knew it, I had a whole wood shop of tools and, within a year, a full-blown custom woodworking business out of my parents’ garage.
My girlfriend’s father had a motorized window covering business and did work in the Hollywood Hills and Pacific Palisades. I got some of the same clientele and made pieces [for Angelina Jolie, Matthew McConaughey].
BACK ON BOARD
I was a snowboarder before my accident, since 1996. I mainly did freestyle, slopestyle, a little bit of everything. I was competitive but not serious.
Months after amputation, I got back to snowboarding.
The first time on my board, there was definitely a control problem. I was steering with my front leg and had no attachment to the back of the board [my amputation is below the knee] so I was compensating with my good leg. It took a while to fine tune. I had to make things up as I went because I had no one to ask.
I ride goofy, which means my right foot is in front [and my prosthesis is in back]. I’ve always skated and snowboarded goofy. It’s just a preference.
Around 2009 or 2010, Amy Purdy [a double amputee who I’d met through a prosthetist] invited me to a regional boardercross competition at Tahoe. It was the first time I ever met anyone who’d done the same sports as I’d done with prosthetic legs. I did quite well and got invited to 2010 USASA Nationals at the end of the season at Copper Mountain. I was on the podium in three of five events – halfpipe, slopestyle, ‘cross – and I was third overall.
Then the head coach of the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colorado, called and asked if I wanted to train there.
I had no issues leaving the city in California where I was born. I sold all my woodworking tools – for pennies to the dollar. It’s the way I live my life. When I make a decision, I go 100 percent no matter what the consequences are. I’ll make it happen.
But I was more interested in freestyle. I didn’t enjoy racing; I just liked being around other amputees, sharing stories and sharing the sport. In 2012, I started to develop a love for snowboardcross. Once I started to love the sport, I started to be more successful.
I’d been chasing [2012 world champion and 2011 X Games champion] Evan Strong for years, and I beat him at the Copper Mountain Nor Am [in February].
This year, the National Sports Center for the Disabled coach left Winter Park to start his own program in Tahoe and I was offered his coaching position. I started coaching all ages, all disabilities. But it’s a little conflict of interest to coach elites, so I’ll draw the line this year and help the sport grow.
I also hope to be a good person and someone people trust. And, by example, show that no matter what happens – no matter how bad things are – if you make small steps, you can always turn your life around.”
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.