James Sides completes his Snowboard Cross Qualification Run 2 at Jeongseon Alpine Centre on Day 2 of the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Games on March 12, 2018.
On July 15, 2012, Jimmy Sides experienced a life-altering event.
Sides, then a U.S. Marine staff sergeant serving as an explosive ordnance technician with the 4th Platoon, 1st EOD Company, received a call to disarm an improvised explosive device, or IED, east of Marjah, Afghanistan.
“We were doing our thing,” Sides recalled of that fateful Sunday. “Went to dig up the IED — the main charge, the explosive charge — and it was booby-trapped and detonated while I was on top of it.
“That ended up with me losing my right hand and vision in my left eye. The explosion shredded my right hand to my wrist.”
Sides had survived but lost the lower part of his right arm and spent the next month in an intensive care unit. Looking back today, he can put it all in perspective.
“It’s sad to say, but it’s only a hand,” Sides said. “I had buddies losing three whole limbs and people dying. I wasn’t going to let a little hand stop me from doing what I love to do.”
Sides loved to be active outdoors. The Austin, Texas, native had moved before his eighth-grade year to Gainesville, Florida, where he immersed himself in surfing, skateboarding and mountain biking.
“I wanted to do sports and be active like I always was,” Sides said. “I found out a lot of sports I like to do involve my hands.”
While recuperating at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Sides was introduced to the facility’s recovery through sports events.
“One of them is called ‘Ski Spectacular,’ and it’s held in Breckenridge, Colorado,” said Sides, who decided to attend and focus on snowboarding. He did well and was invited to the 2013 race camp there.
“The … thing that came the most natural was snowboarding, because you’re on your feet and legs already,” Sides said. “There’s no real problem or slow up with snowboarding (for) an upper-limb amputee.”
His vision can be a challenge, however.
“I have problems in terms of gauging speed and how fast stuff is coming at me,” said Sides, adding that jumps and turns in low light are difficult. “I don’t like riding when it’s storming out. I try to avoid low-light situations just because of my depth perception, or lack thereof.
“I can’t dwell on it too much, because then I would never ride.”
At the Breckenridge race camp, he was noticed by the Adaptive Action Sports organization run by Dan Gale and Amy Purdy. Soon, Sides was training with their athletes, who were preparing for the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, though no upper-limb amputees were allowed at Sochi.
On April 1, 2014, Sides was medically retired from the Marine Corps. When he discovered that upper-limb amputees would be allowed at the PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, he made an easy decision.
“I said, ‘Let’s do this,’” Sides recalled.
Sides found himself in South Korea in March 2018 along with fellow former Marine 4th Platoon member Ralph DeQuebec, who had been wounded a month before Sides. DeQuebec would win a gold medal as a member of the U.S. sled hockey team.
“A very surreal and very humbling, just totally awesome experience,” said Sides of the Paralympics. “My dream was just to go. I honestly never really thought about medaling. I didn’t care. I just wanted to go to the Paralympics and represent my country again, like I had before, just in a different avenue.”
Sides, who competed in the SB-UL classifications, placed 14th in banked slalom and 15th in snowboardcross.
“The competition was pretty fierce,” Sides said. “I had only been snowboarding for four years at that time. And I was up against guys that had been snowboarding since they were 5.”
That experience ended his Para snowboarding career. The now 38-year-old Sides and wife Amy have Avery, their 3-year-old daughter to consider.
“I was having to juggle family life and race life,” Sides said. “A lot of people don’t realize what professional athletes have to go through. It’s a full-time career.”
In addition to fatherhood, Sides is focusing on his post-competition life as a ski patroller at Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Frisco, Colorado.
“I fell in love with that,” Sides said. “I’m going to be there until they kick me off the mountain.”
Sides has other plans, too.
“I want to kind of fall back into my EOD roots, and I want to blow up some snow,” Sides said. “So I’m getting into the avalanche mitigation.”
In his spare time, Sides stays outdoors — mountain biking, skateboarding, skiing, camping and hiking.
“We do all things outdoors up here,” Sides said. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Sides said he is grateful to organizations such as Adaptive Action Sports and Team Semper Fi that gave him so much support during his Para snowboarding career. He has coached and mentored upcoming Para athletes. Next month he will serve on two panels at this year’s virtual Ski Spectacular.
“I would love to help continue the sport, even though I’m not an athlete,” Sides said.
“I’m really excited to do that and give back and help any way I can.”