Mike Schultz competes in PyeongChang. (Photo: Mark Reis)
Fans watching their favorite Para snowboarders may not always be able to spot their rider’s special equipment easily because it’s covered by their pants, shirt or a boot. Yet most Para snowboarders use equipment that is adapted to their needs, such as a prosthetic leg, arm, knee or foot, or orthotic brace to bend their ankle properly. Some riders also use a wedge to help them balance on their boards or a special riding foot with a shock to help absorb the terrain.
“For Paralympic athletes, the equipment is extremely important. It’s basically the tool that bridges the gap from what’s not possible to what’s possible physically,” said two-time Paralympic medalist Mike Schultz. “For amputees, the equipment is front and center of what makes a difference for us.”
At the international level of competition, all equipment must adhere to the World Para Snowboard Equipment Rules and Regulations and be reviewed one month prior to an athlete’s first event.
Most of the U.S. Para snowboard team uses equipment produced by , a company founded and owned by Schultz, which designs and manufactures prosthetics for amputees including more than 100 wounded warriors and numerous Paralympians. Many of the U.S. Para snowboarders competing at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, as well as athletes from seven different countries, used his equipment. His company produces advanced equipment that can withstand the impact of various action sports and is much sturdier than prosthetics worn on an everyday basis, meaning it allows for better performance.
“In order to walk in a prosthesis, the knee system has to be flexible and swing back and forth,” Schultz said. “When needing to snowboard, it would just collapse while you’re carving, so our snowboard knees and feet have springs in them that work as a quadricep muscle. We can tune so we have resistance in our knees so that when we’re carving on a heel side or toe side or impacting big jumps the spring rate and hydraulic dampening allow them to do what we do. If we were trying to use an everyday prosthesis, it would just collapse underneath us and wouldn’t give us that tension to allow us to ride the way that we do.”
Two-time Paralympic medalist Keith Gabel, who rides with a custom-fit prosthetic leg and versa foot (which essentially has a mountain bike shock built into it to provide ankle articulation) said he is a “big advocate for using technology more” in the sport, but noted there is also a fine line between ensuring fairness of competition and also taking into account budget and equity.
The cost of snowboard equipment — a knee, foot, and/or socket — is more than the everyday equipment and not typically covered by insurance. It could cost more than $10,000 for Para snowboard equipment, but with the assistance of grants from non-profits such as Wiggle Your Toes, 50 Legs or Challenged Athletes Foundation, the financial burden can potentially be much lighter.
However, if you are committed to the sport for the long-term, it’s definitely worth the investment.
“I would suggest getting the best equipment as soon as possible because that’s going to allow you to have more dynamic movements as an athlete,” Schultz said. “It’s what makes an athlete be able to do what he or she does, having their range of motion up and down on the board and absorb impact and chatter. The sooner you get better-performing equipment, the sooner you can elevate your performance level and learn that much better, much quicker.”