Extremity Sports — Have Prosthetic, Will Rock!

Circa 2007

Kimberly Olson nearly puked. She looked down one more time with that sweaty feeling and tight throat that comes minutes before becoming sick.

Just hold on to the rope and sit down. That’s all she could hear because everyone at the bottom of the wall was saying it over and over. But what if she smashed her face? What if she couldn’t get down easy? What if she slipped?

“Like with anything, the first time is the hardest,” Olson said, describing the initial time she scaled a wall in her attempt to rock climb back in February 2006. “But once you get beyond that, you’re like, ‘Whoa, that was a fun ride.’”

That ride has transformed into a passion for Olson, who was diagnosed with osteomyelitis at age 20. The infection of her bone and bone marrow reduced blood flow in her right leg, and it had to be amputated.

“I was in denial for 13 years because I was bound and determined to prove to everybody that there was nothing wrong with me, that I could do everything everybody else could do,” Olson said. “It’s not like I didn’t know I was missing a body part. I just chose not to act like I was missing a body part.”

Olson was working for a prosthetic company, when she spoke with someone about distributing flyers promoting a sports competition among individuals with limb loss or limb difference. “Are you competing?” asked the representative from College Park Industries, a company that develops prosthetics. No way was Olson competing. She never was an athlete. She cheered in high school, then quit to join the dance team. But when she failed to make the cut, sport disappeared from her life. “No, I’m not an athlete,” she told the representative. All she wanted to do was hand out the flyers.

But then she read one of them and started thinking. Then she found a rock climbing gym near her home andshe signed up.

“It sounds hokie to say, but it really has completely changed my life,” Olson said. “Not only do I look awesome from training and getting into the sport, but it gave me confidence that I didn’t know I had. It made me push myself in a way that I didn’t know that I could.”

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Eric Robinson hears that a lot.

He’s the brainchild behind the O&P Extremity Games, where athletes like Olson competed July 19-21 in events such as rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, skateboarding and water sports, just to name a few. This year was the second time the games have been held.

Through Robinson’s work at College Park Industries, he had talked with amputees who wanted a strong product for such things as ankle movement. And those same people told him they loved the product for adventure sports.

“It had dawned on us that nobody we knew had competed in a Paralympic event,” Robinson said. “That’s really not our niche. It’s one of those things where we thought our product was not high-end enough to compete in a Paralympic event. Nobody used our product for that. All of a sudden we found a niche—extreme sports.”

So the ambition began. A few sports here. A few sports there. Suddenly Robinson was garnering interest from around the country and in other parts of the globe.

“I was searching around the Internet looking for information on amputees who were climbing, looking for new equipment and just trying to stay informed on the prosthetic world,” said Pete Davis, a congenital amputee of the right arm and a climber for 15 years. “In my search on the Internet, I came across it and thought, ‘Wow, that’s perfect. That’s me. I need to be there.’”

Whereas Olson was a late-bloomer, Davis was a climber from the start. He was introduced to the wall as a fearless 12-year-old kid at summer camp. His friends did it, and so did he.

“The first time I climbed, I just went right up to it and climbed it,” said Davis, 27. “I didn’t know if I could do it or not, but it worked out. It just clicked, and I really picked up on it. I felt like that’s what I had been missing in my life, and it’s been history ever since.”

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Davis isn’t sure why, but he’s noticed the increased parallels between extreme sports popularity and opportunities for athletes with disabilities.

“I consider my disability a gift. It’s given me all these cool opportunities so I’ve got to make something out of it,” said Davis, who ended up placing second in the advanced rock climbing competition at the Extremity Games. “We have to show the public that it’s not taboo, that it’s not something to be hidden away or disregarded.”

The Extremity Games appear to be one way of getting that message across.

Competition in skateboarding, hitting the waves for surfing against the best, climbing a wall to determine a winner – they aren’t exactly the sports most commonly associated with disability. The beauty of it? The stereotypes associated with an amputee or person with a disability are shattered.

“One of the goals was for us to defy the stereotype that our product had in the marketplace, that it wasn’t a high-end product,” Robinson said. “We said you know what, screw that. Look at all these people doing these wild and crazy sports. Let’s show the world what our product can do, so it became a showcase for College Park to say, ‘Look what prosthetics can do today.’ Our products happened to be the majority in the competition instead of the minority or absent completely. So it started out a little bit of a selfish scheme thing, then we realized this is much bigger than we ever anticipated. The movement is so big and so strong that we went nonprofit with the Extremity Games because we felt we need to bring our competitors into this because the potential is so huge.”

And so was the interest.

This year’s games showcased nearly 160 competitors, up from 90 last year. Athletes came from at least six countries. The age of the athletes varies, and many of them are wounded soldiers.

But most of all, it’s a chance for competition.

A 60-year-old with a disability doesn’t have to compete against a 27-year-old surfer. Both can now go up against surfers their own age.

A 20-year-old soldier back from Iraq can do more than wakeboard on the lake with buddies. He can compete with other wakeboarders with disabilities.

And a 21-year-old snowboarder doesn’t have to wait until the next snow fall in Utah to compete again— something most people told her she couldn’t do in the first place. She can head to Florida and compete in wakeboarding instead.

“The big thing about the Extremity Games is that I’ve found something that I almost love as much as snowboarding,” said Nicole Roundy, an above-knee amputee who has defied all advice given to her and has become an accomplished snowboarder thanks to groundbreaking technology in prosthetics and organizations that have provided online communities. “At this point, I still feel like I am just getting into it. It’s just about getting out there and representing and showing other athletes, or people with any disability for that matter, what can happen when you put your mind to it.

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“I’ve been an amputee for almost 16 years now almost. I went nine of those years not having anything I could do physically with confidence. And then this just happened. Just to be able to get out there and accomplish something and be a part of something and kind of feel like I am good at something again, that has been huge. That has been just what I needed.”

For Olson, the Extremity Games have been a wakeup call. Competing and finishing third in advanced rock climbing have given her a different take on life. Excuses her three kids come up with for why they can’t do their chores just don’t cut it anymore. Climbing and participating in Extremity Games have introduced her to a new social circle that she has warmly embraced.

“For me, it’s gone beyond even that,” Olson said. “I’m more than normal. I’m trying to be like the bionic woman: I’m stronger, I’m faster, I’m better than I was before I had my amputation. Now, if I had all my body parts, sure I’d be a lot better climber. But I don’t know that I would have ever bothered if it weren’t for the path that I’ve taken.”

by Josh Pate

Extremity Games www.extremitygames.com

Paradox Sports www.paradoxsports.org

Adaptive Action Sports www.adacs.org

College Park Industries www.college-park.com

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