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Paralympic Snowboarder Joe Pleban Approached Amputation In The Most Fun Way Possible - A Bucket List

By Sheridan Powell | July 30, 2020, 3:32 p.m. (ET)

Joe Pleban headshot inside the training facility.

Joe Pleban poses inside the U.S. Training Facility. 


He called it ‘The Left Foot Bucket List.’ With a below-knee amputation of his left foot scheduled in just over a month, Joe Pleban and his family created a list of things he had always wanted to do. The list included things like skydiving, top-level go kart racing, scuba diving and even a tattoo. 

The list was born with the intent of bringing humor into an otherwise daunting situation. 

“I could easily have sat around and really second guessed myself and got in my own head - which, believe me, still happened - but it helped to be having fun checking off all these activities that I had always wanted to do,” Pleban explained. 

Pleban was diagnosed with Pigmented Villonodular Synovitis after breaking his ankle at age 18. PVNS had caused him to develop benign tumors in his ankle that slowly ate away at the cartilage in his joint. Despite a handful of attempts to remove the tumors, they continued to grow back and by 22 he had to readjust many aspects of his active lifestyle.

Pleban grew up spending time on the slopes with his family in Vermont, first skiing and eventually snowboarding. He fell in love with the sport and continued to spend more and more time on the snow - even working as a ski tech in Lake Tahoe shortly after graduating college. 

He first became unable to continue playing rugby, which he had done throughout college. Next came running, and even walking. When even snowboarding became painful, Pleban began to explore other options. 

“When I hit the point of not being able to snowboard anymore, I knew I was going to have to do something pretty drastic to get it back. I was in tears just thinking, ‘This is my last sport, this is my favorite sport, please don’t take this from me.’” 

From there, Pleban began to seriously consider the idea of amputation. 

“It’s different when you’re making the choice to amputate versus waking up from surgery and suddenly you’re missing a limb. We wanted to make sure we did all the research. I talked to my mentor Tony Meehan a lot, who also had an elective amputation. To see how active he was made me realize there was really something out there for me still.” 

After meeting with several surgeons, the amputation was scheduled. And thus, a time frame to complete the bucket list. Pleban admits that one of his favorite things on the list, and the one that often garners him the most attention, was the tattoo. 

“I knew that if I got an amputation I was 100% getting a tattoo. It was the only tattoo I could ever get that was permanent....but not permanent. It was going to get cut off anyways,” he laughed. 

So unbeknownst to his team of surgeons, Pleban got a dotted line with the words ‘Please Cut Here’ on his left ankle. “I showed up on the day of the surgery at the hospital and the doctors are lifting up the sheet and asking ‘Okay, which foot are we doing? Oh wow - okay.,’ Pleban explained. “We all got a kick out of it. I just wanted to make sure they didn’t do the wrong foot!” 

It doesn't have to be this big death sentence. You can make it fun, before and after.

Pleban wasn’t checking off bucket list items on his own. His family was along for most of the ride, as was his girlfriend at the time (now wife). 

“Johanna and I had just started dating. This was like early, early in our relationship. I think I even gave her an out - I told her there was a real chance I was going to get an amputation and it wasn’t going to be pretty. If she wanted to just be friends I wouldn’t be offended. And her response was ‘No, let’s do this.’ ”

So whether it was jumping out of an airplane, scuba diving or getting pelted with paintballs, Johanna was right there with him. 

As they worked their way through the list, Pleban developed a social media following. It started when his sister posted a photo of his tattoo on Reddit and it went viral  “We had already been documenting the bucket list and taking pictures, but we hadn’t really taken it out to social media until then. But we found out that people were actually interested in this  thing that we were doing, so we put it out there.” 

Pleban said that one of his favorite parts of the whole journey has been connecting with other people who are considering amputations. 

“That’s really why I loved going out onto social media I think - other people considering amputations could see that it doesn’t have to be this big death sentence. You can make it fun, before and after.” 

When asked about his decision to pursue snowboarding on the Paralympic side, Pleban’s response was simple. “Oh that decision was made before the amputation even happened. Snowboarding was part of the decision to get the amputation”

Pleban began to look for opportunities to compete and get onto the snowboarding scene when his mom learned about Adaptive Action Sports. He was excited to realize that he hadn’t lost much ability after the amputation, and was able to return to the slopes fairly quickly. He attended his first competition, USASA Nationals at Copper Mountain, where in his own words, he got a ‘big old helping of humble pie.’ 

“In my head I was thinking, ‘I was good at snowboarding before, I’m still good now. I’m going to come in here and no one’s going to know what hit them.’ I think I got like 10th place,” he laughed. 

He admits that the experience was important in realizing how much work it was going to take to reach the level of competition of some of the top athletes. 

“It was very humbling but it was very inspiring. I’m not as good as I thought I was, but I can get there.” 

Now, Pleban has his sights set on the Beijing Winter Paralympics in 2022. He pointed to the end of this past season as a big turning point for him, where he finished first at the Sun Valley NORAM. He remembers when he first started, traveling to competitions and being in awe of the U.S. Team and setting his sights on those podiums. 

“To actually get up on the podium was incredibly cool. I’m not saying I’ve made it until it's that podium in Beijing, but it was definitely a great goal to achieve.”