Days after amputation No. 2, Paralympian Burdick circling a comback date

By Doug Williams | Jan. 12, 2015, 12 p.m. (ET)
Tyler Burdick
Tyler Burdick competed at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, placing eighth in snowboard cross. Following the Games, he had both legs amputated. 

Tyler Burdick has a plan, and he laughs when he talks about it.

By April 1, he wants to be on his board at Snowbird, sliding down the slopes of the Utah resort where he once worked. He has friends all over the mountain. He’s eager to see their faces.

“I can’t wait to get out there and give them a little April Fools’ joke when they see me snowboarding,” he says.

Seeing Burdick on a snowboard won’t be anything new for them, of course. He’s been a snowboarder most of his life and was on the U.S. Paralympic Team in Sochi, Russia, last year. He finished eighth in the Games’ debut of men's standing snowboard cross.

But Burdick recently had the lower portions of both legs amputated, the end result of extensive injuries suffered in 2010. Burdick, a Navy hospital corpsman with the 6th Marine Regiment, suffered damage to both legs when a roadside bomb in Afghanistan tore apart his armored vehicle.

His right leg was amputated Jan. 5; his left leg on Sept. 28. So for Burdick to be back on his board on April 1 is ambitious.

Yet Burdick has a plan, and he’s determined to make it work. He was up walking with a prosthetic on his left leg about a month before his second surgery, and he hopes to be walking with both prosthetics by March 1. Then will come his first adventure on snow, a summer of snowboarding, continued rehabilitation and activity, followed by a target of being ready to compete in the first IPC snowboarding event in the Netherlands in November. A year from now, he hopes to have regained his spot on the U.S. national team.

Mike Shea, a U.S. teammate and silver medalist at Sochi, has no doubt Burdick will make it happen. Like the rest of his teammates, he’s stayed in touch with Burdick. He says Burdick’s spirits are high, and Shea expects to see him snowboarding by the end of the season.

“That’s what military guys bring to the U.S. team,” said Shea, who is currently ranked No. 1 in the world. “It seems to be across the board with most military guys, especially Tyler, is that their determination and strength kind of rub off on the rest of the team. It kind of brings that whole military aspect of, ‘I can do anything’ … and that’s what Tyler’s kind of brought to us. It’s been a great blessing.”

“It’s Going to be a Better Option”

Though Burdick, 33, had been able to get back on his snowboard and be a competitive athlete at the Paralympic level after his injuries, amputation always was an option. Finally, it was the only sensible option.

He’d worn heavy braces on his lower legs to create sort of an external skeleton.

“Basically a prosthetic wrapped around what was left of my limb,” he said.

He had little feeling or motion in his ankles and feet, which had screws in them. The pain had increased and the functionality had decreased to such an extent that Burdick and his doctors determined that amputation would be the best course. Plus, he was going to have to undergo corrective surgery on the limbs anyway, with no guarantee of making things better for the long term.

So now, after undergoing both surgeries, Burdick is optimistic and upbeat — even if he was laughing four days after the second amputation about being a bit loopy from the pain medication.

He’s been well taken care of in his Salt Lake City home, by both his mother and father, and is eager to get up out of bed and get moving. He’s not mourning what was lost but looking forward to what will be gained.

“Having been in a prosthetic now for about a month, I feel like it’s more dynamic,” he said. “Already I can tell it’s going to be a better option for me.”

What’s helped through the whole process, he says, is the support of his teammates, many of whom know all about amputation. Burdick says they’ve provided information, listened and helped in many ways. Plus, he can look at them and see how they’ve prospered after their surgeries.

Burdick says he’s lucky he’s had such help from friends and organizations in and out of the military in snowboarding. The team is so tight they call it a “tribe.”

“I’ve seen what the amputees are doing,” he said. “That’s definitely been a factor. It makes it less daunting. I don’t look at amputating my legs as a bad thing. I really, truly feel like this is a performance upgrade.”

U.S. snowboarder Amy Purdy, a bronze medalist from Sochi and a double below-the-knee amputee, has long been an inspiration for Burdick, and is now a friend as well.

“We’ve been talking and joking around,” Burdick said. “She sent me a message on Facebook the other day saying she can’t wait to race me when I get up on my feet. We’ll be the only two double below-the-knee amputees on the team.”

Aside from being a snowboarder, Burdick also likes to hike, mountain bike and sail, just as he always has.

He agrees with Shea, that military service has helped him stay determined. He calls his recent surgeries and all that goes with them “just a minor speed bump.”

“It’s almost a badge of honor to overcome your injuries,” he said. “You feel obligated for your comrades, for the guys that didn’t make it home, the guys that were hurt worse than you. There’s just no room for pity or anything like that. That mindset of getting up and going on and continuing the mission is something I think the military vets have to overcome this kind of stuff.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.