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Missing The Paralympics Was a Blessing In Disguise For Joe Pleban

By Lela Moore | May 03, 2022, 6:30 a.m. (ET)

Joe Pleban competes in banked slalom at world championships in Lillehammer. (Photo: Luc Percival)

At the same time in March that Joe Pleban would have dropped into his heat in the snowboardcross event at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, had he made the U.S. team, his wife, Johnna, went into labor with their first child.


Pleban said that being left off the team devastated him.


“To lose four years of work. … To come so close then watch all my friends and teammates go be a part of the Games that I had poured my heart, soul, and effort into, heartbroken is an understatement,” he wrote on Instagram on April 12.


Because he didn’t go to Beijing, however, he was able to participate in the birth of his and Johnna’s daughter, Jamie.

“Sometimes our most painful moments do happen for a reason, but you don’t always know that right away. It may take a while,” Pleban said.


For Pleban, it took right up until Jamie’s birth.


“This really is where I was meant to be,” he said.


Pleban said that he been in Beijing and known Johnna was in labor, he could not have performed well. He and Johnna have been together for eight years, and she helped him through his amputation and its aftermath.


“She was there for me through all of my dark times, and now I can be there for her through this very difficult process of labor and delivery,” he said.


Johnna, Pleban said, told him something after Jamie’s birth that gave him peace.


“We were sitting in the hospital room after Jamie was born, and I’m sitting there holding her, and her eyes are already open, she’s already looking around, and I’m like, oh my gosh, this is amazing, I just can’t believe I’m here for this,” he said.


Johnna “really made it clear,” Pleban said. “She goes, no matter what you did, the universe wasn’t going to let you go to Beijing this season.”


Up until that point, Pleban said, he had felt like a failure. He had to deal with setbacks like breaking his collarbone twice and having a false-positive COVID-19 test that caused him to miss a training day at a world cup.  


“And it helped me realize that it wasn’t necessarily that I had failed. It was out of my control. I overcame literally everything I could,” he said. “And this season was out of my control for the best reason there is, and that’s the birth of my daughter.”


Finding a silver lining is in Pleban’s nature. When he was diagnosed with a rare joint disorder, he gradually had to cut back on the sports he regularly participated in. Snowboarding was the only sport that didn’t cause him pain. When at last he couldn’t snowboard any longer, he opted to amputate his right leg and pursue Para snowboarding instead of quitting the sport he loved.


Pleban said he had aspired, as an able-bodied athlete, to snowboard professionally but had gotten a late start in the sport and never competed. But his chances for success as a Para athlete were strong. He found Adaptive Action Sports, based in Copper Mountain, Colorado, and began talking to its co-founder, Daniel Gale.


“So my whole family took a trip out to Copper Mountain,” Pleban said. “I got to ride and hang out with the whole AAS crew and I just fell in love with it. They’re an awesome crew.”


Pleban lived in Virginia at the time and had trouble finding a support group for amputees.


“I hadn’t been around other amputees since my amputation,” he said. “I didn’t really have a community in Virginia. … It’s very military focused. And since I was a civilian, I had trouble finding support groups for civilians out here, but these guys were all snowboarders.


“The amount that I’ve learned from them, on just little tips and tricks about being an amputee snowboarder, was huge. And it just felt like I was at home.”


Pleban and Johnna began living in Colorado during the winters so he could train; they moved home to Virginia in the summers. Adaptive Action Sports helped Pleban get classified, a process he said was relatively simple for him, but for which he was grateful for the knowledge of the process he gleaned from his teammates and coaches.


In turn, he now mentors amputees himself. He reminds them that they can still do everything they could as an able-bodied athlete, just perhaps with a few more steps. He said a procedure called targeted motor reinnervation helped him immensely with the nerve pain he dealt with post-amputation, and he tries to educate others working through it.


His immediate goal for 2022, Pleban says, “is just to try to sleep as much as I can.” As the father of a newborn, he knows that’s a tall order, but Jamie, he says, “is a really mellow baby” and is already sleeping well as a one-month-old.


He also hopes to stay in shape over the summer.


“I have a new appreciation for where dad bods come from,” he laughs. “So if I can just show that I’ve have had some improvement instead of regression, I’ll be pretty happy.”


Leading up to the 2026 Paralympic Winter Games in Italy, Pleban said he wants to make as many world cup podiums as possible.


“I haven’t placed above a bronze in a world cup,” he said, “and so my big goal is to get silver.”


And he hopes Jamie will be able to travel to Italy to see him compete there.


“I want to be on the podium in Italy in front of my daughter,” he said, “to be able to say, ‘Hey, I was there for your birth. And now you get to see me on a podium.’”

Lela Moore

Lela Moore is a freelance contributor to USParaSnowboarding.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.