Josh Sundquist — A Man in Uniform

Circa 2010


At the race, Mark says that I’ll be competing in a category called “Three-Trackers,” since I make three tracks in the snow with my two outriggers and one ski. “How many other three-trackers are there in the race?” I ask.

“You’re the only one,” he says.

“So…who am I racing against?”

“The clock,” he says.

The clock? That doesn’t make sense! A clock is not a three-tracker, and it doesn’t even ski. I can’t believe this! I spent this whole week, this whole week, looking forward to winning today. I even did push-ups to get in shape so I could win. But now…there’s no one to race against. I can’t win first place anymore, because to win first place, someone else always has to get second.

But…I guess even if I can’t win, I do like skiing fast. Skiing is the only time I get to go fast anymore. So I will still ski today, just for fun.

I ski through the race course eight times. Afterward, there is an awards ceremony where Mark gives out medals for each category—blind skiers, skiers with one arm, skiers in wheelchairs, skiers who drool and can’t talk right, skiers who walk funny and can’t move their left arm, and of course, three-trackers.

Since I am the only three-tracker, I get eight gold medals.

After people clap for me, I tell Mom and Dad the eight medals are stupid since I was last place, and they say, no, I was first place, and I say, no, I was last place, and we keep arguing until an old man walks over and puts his hand on my shoulder.

“Son, I watched you ski today,” he says.

“Okay,” I say.

“I want to tell you something.”


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He looks at Mom and Dad, and then back at me. “I used to coach the United States Paralympic ski team. Have you ever heard of that?”

“No, sir,” I say.

“The Paralympics is the Olympics for people with disabilities,” he says. “Ski racing is one of the sports in the Paralympics. Like I said, I saw you ski today, and I want you to know that you have great potential.”

I look down from his face to his jacket, which is shiny, has a zipper down the middle and is red, white, and blue. On his chest, right in the middle, there are three big patches sewn on. They spell “USA.” The patches are big and white and strong looking. I look down from his jacket to his pants, and I see that they are made out of the same red, white, and blue shiny material, and they have the same USA patches, just smaller, near the top of the left pant leg.

“Did you—did you get that jacket at the Paralympics?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says.

“What about your pants?”

“Yes. And a hat and a few other things, too. Whole uniform, I got there.”

From skiing? A uniform? Really? Could I wear it to church?

“If I went to the Paralympics to ski race,” I ask, “do you think I would get a whole uniform like that?”

“Of course,” he says, patting me on the back. “Of course.”

Then he winks at me, nods to Mom and Dad, and walks away before I can ask him where I sign up for the Paralympics, because that’s what I want to do as soon as I finish this chemotherapy. I want to finish chemo, let my hair grow back, then sign up for the Paralympics and get a uniform. It will be even better than the uniform Aaron wore to church, because his is just plain green. Mine will have three different colors and it will say “USA” on it. And it will be shinier than his, too. If I wear my uniform to church, everyone will want to be friends with me and Keisha will want to kiss me, even though she moved away, so I will have to mail her a picture of it. But I will get the uniform and I will win ski races, maybe even ski races that have other three-trackers in them so I don’t get first place and last place at the same time like I did today. Then my life will be perfect.

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Paul DiBello, our double-amputee team director, didn’t actually buy us tickets for the 2002 Paralympic Opening Ceremony. He just arranged for the other coaches to bring us to Salt Lake City today. If we want to watch the event itself, we’re on our own.

So it’s a good thing I’m friends with Ralph, because he has no problem getting a ticket for himself and for me. Free. I ask him how he did this.

“Confidence,” he says.


“Um . . . okay,” I say. “Well, thanks!”

“You got it, Smoshes.”

That’s what he always calls me: Smoshes. I guess because it rhymes with Josh…sort of. Ralph invents nicknames for everyone—everyone. Even if he’s never going to talk to them again. Like, if you just met him on the ski lift, he’ll have a nickname made up for you by the time you get off at the top of the mountain.

Our seats for the Opening Ceremony are up on the top row—but they’re free, so I’m not complaining—and rain and snow falls on us and the 50,000 other people in the Olympic (now Paralympic) stadium during the ceremony. People stare at Ralph and me. We are two guys of highly contrasting size and skin color wearing matching blue plastic ponchos and standing up in the very top row, each on our one leg, hopping and hollering while everyone around us huddles together to keep warm. When the host team, the US team, finally marches into the stadium—the climax, after all the other countries—that’s when people really start staring at Ralph and me.

“That’s us in four years!” I yell.

“Hell yeah, Smoshes!”


We embrace, hopping up and down on our single legs.

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“Turino, baby!”

“2006 here we come!”

Neither of us is wearing a prosthesis. Ralph never wears one. I wear mine about half the time. It’s good to wear for social occasions, and times when I have to carry ski equipment. But when I know I will have to do a lot of walking—like I am tonight in Salt Lake—I stick with crutches, because they’re much easier to use.

Before Salt Lake, Ralph and I were at a World Cup race in Canada, where we came in second to last and last, respectively. Not too good, but about average for my season so far. It’s been almost three months since I finished high school and moved to Colorado. I’ve been in four or five races, all with disappointing results, even though I train six days a week. Whenever I get on the race course, as I come down the mountain trying to remember all the information and tips and techniques for ski racing that I’ve stuffed in my brain, my body freezes and I lose faith in myself.

But being in this stadium with all these cheering people and fireworks and music and teams of athletes marching in, I can forget about the race results and remember the reason I moved out west in the first place: down there on the field, those athletes are wearing the uniform of their home nations.

When the ceremonies end and the stadium starts to clear out, I feel a sense of purpose, as if my muscles are eager to engage in some kind of movement. I need some time alone, so I tell Ralph I want to go explore. We agree to meet later in the evening. I walk down the cement stairs, still wet—crutches, leg, crutches, leguntil I am on the ground level, looking down a tunnel that leads into brightness.

The brightness is so complete that the tunnel itself, its two walls, floor, ceiling, blend together like a black hole. This is where the athletes—the Paralympians— walked an hour ago. I think about this. I want to walk there, too. I want to know how it feels. But there is a pair of guards at the end of the tunnel, silhouetted in the light. Do they have guns? Can they arrest me? I hear Mom in my mind, telling me not to risk it—it will go on your permanent record, you won’t get into college, you will work at McDonald’s the rest of your life—and then I hear something else, a single word: coffi’dense. So I march through the tunnel and in between the security guards—“Evening, gentlemen”—give them a nod. They nod back. And then I’m on the field, walking the same lap around the stadium that the Paralympians just did.

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The rain has stopped, but there are still shallow pools of water everywhere, all of them just beginning to freeze over. The stadium is quiet except for the sound of the Paralympic torch burning a few stories up, making a sound like a flag whipping and waving in a gusty wind. I walk onto the center stage and look at tens of thousands of people, including Mom and Dad and Matt, and I am wearing a red-white-and-blue uniform. I wave to the crowd.

I think about everything I’ve done to get here, to make the Paralympic team, about all the times I’ve been at the gym and I’ve pushed my leg beyond exhaustion, and about all the hours I’ve spent reading books about skiing, about how there are days when I wish I were back home with my family instead of being 17 years old, living in Colorado with teammates I don’t really know. I think about all this, and about how it’s all worth it now because I am standing in front of this roaring crowd, knowing that I did it, I finished, I made it, I was a cause and this is the effect and therefore there is order and meaning to the universe. And the best part is, since I’ve made the Paralympics and since I’ve gotten this uniform, from now on, nothing else matters. No matter what happens to me, no matter how disappointing or sad things get, no matter if the rest of my life is a failure, no matter if people don’t like me, no matter if I never get a hot girlfriend, I can always look back and say to myself, “It doesn’t matter because I was a Paralympian. I represented my country. I made the team.”

“Can I take your picture?”

The question snaps me out of my daydream and I find myself standing in front of 50,000 empty seats.

“What?” I say.

“Can I take a picture of you standing on that stage?”

The voice comes from below me, on the ground level, where I see a man wearing a laminated badge around his neck and a plain black baseball cap on his head. A nylon bag hangs from his shoulder. He holds a camera with both hands.

“Sorry, I’m not competing in the games,” I say.

I’m not even supposed to be standing here.

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“That’s okay,” he says, kneeling down so the torch is framed behind me.

“But hopefully I’ll be there in 2006,” I add.

“So…um…you just want me here like this?”

“That’s perfect.”

I clench my jaw, squint a little. This photo will win awards.

“Tell you what,” he says, shutter clicking. “If you make it in 2006, I’ll take your picture there, too.”

I smile, despite my best efforts at jaw-clenching and eye-squinting. I just can’t help it.

“It’s a deal,” I say. “I’ll be there.”

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Just Don’t Fall Copyright 2010 by Josh Sundquist

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