Paul Leimkuehler competes in Para alpine skiing.
U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Famer Paul Leimkuehler was many things, including a World War II veteran, devoted family man, athlete, inventor and successful businessman.
He was also a lower limb amputee, and granddaughter Katie Leimkuehler hopes that in sharing his story in the new film “Fresh Tracks,” people will not only learn about his legacy — Leimkuehler’s outrigger design is still used today in adaptive skiing — but also about how he faced adversity and thrived.
“Our whole goal is to inspire people to reimagine challenge as opportunity and I think (the film) does that,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s touched people and has inspired people to go after things they may not have done before. It’s definitely been quite an amazing experience to see it come to life and actually have the impact I was hoping for.”
Leimkuehler is a fiction writer and wanted to tell her grandfather’s story for years. Back in 2012 she started pitching a screenplay about his life, and while there was interest in it, she also got feedback that if she wanted to truly honor his legacy, she needed to make a documentary.
Now available on Amazon Prime, the film tells the story of Leimkuehler’s life through his wife Kay’s diaries, letters they wrote to each other and other family videos and memorabilia. It also incorporates interviews with current Paralympians, Paralympic hopefuls and other key figures in the world of adaptive skiing who have been impacted by Leimkuehler’s ingenuity.
A Cleveland, Ohio, native, speed skater and Ohio state bike racing champion who narrowly missed making the Olympic cycling team in 1936, Leimkuehler was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. He was serving as a lieutenant during the Battle of the Bulge when he was wounded by a grenade and lost his left leg above the knee. He would later receive a Purple Heart.
During Leimkuehler’s recovery at what is now Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, he started volunteering in the shop where they were making prosthetics. He showed a natural aptitude for the work, and after Leimkuehler returned home a year later he started his own prosthetics and orthotics company. Still in existence today, it became the family business with three of his sons and several grandchildren following him into prosthetics work.
In 1956, at the age of 38, Leimkuehler and his wife went on vacation with some friends to Seven Springs Mountain Resort east of Pittsburgh. While there, Leimkuehler struck up a conversation with a European ski instructor who told him about some amputees overseas who were experimenting with using crutches to help them ski.
His interest sparked, Leimkuehler found a short Austrian film at the library documenting those attempts and was inspired to come up with his own version of the crutches. He took the Canadian crutch design, with cuffs that go around the forearms, and attached cut-off kids’ skis with hinges to the bottoms.
Three-track skiing in the U.S. was born, and outriggers became essential for mono-skiing as well.
Leimkuehler never patented the idea because he wanted everyone to have access to the design and the freedom to make improvements.
One of the things Katie Leimkuehler never knew about her grandfather until making the film was that he didn’t ski before he lost his leg. She always assumed it was something he did before the war and that he wanted to find a way to get back on the slopes.
“We’re a huge family of skiers,” said Leimkuehler, who was 8 years old when her grandfather died in 1993. “He gave us this great gift by learning to do something that no one knew how to do at the time and brought skiing to our family. It’s connected us my whole life.”
The film includes an interview with snowboarder Mike Schultz, who won gold and silver at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2018 and is also the founder of a prosthetics company that caters to action sports enthusiasts. Paralympic swimmer Mallory Weggeman is the voice of Leimkuehler’s grandmother reading her diary entries, and Paralympic alpine skier Andrew Kurka, who won gold in downhill and silver in super-G in 2018, is the narrator.
Leimkuehler said the filmmaking process gave her an even greater appreciation for the impact her grandfather’s outrigger design had on the sport and the people who take part in it even today.
“It was really incredible meeting the National Sports Center for the Disabled athletes we interviewed,” she said. “He wanted people to have access to the joy he felt through skiing so it was super moving to just actually meet a lot of people who benefitted from his designs and learning how it changed their lives or gave them motivation to start racing or do something new.”
Leimkuehler was inducted into the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame as a member of the class of 1981 because of his contributions to adaptive skiing. That his idea would still be so important almost 65 years later, his granddaughter said, might be a surprise.
“He knew he had some impact, but the fact that his design is still impactful so many years later, and will probably still be impactful in the future, I don’t think he would have expected that,” she said. “There’s new technology, and things evolve, but his design is still in place.”