Keith Deutsch is a snowboarder. On August 23, 2003, Keith sustained an injury while serving in the army that left him with a prosthetic leg. Keith did not give up on his dream and attended the FIS Snowboarding World Cup, a lifelong dream of his. Below is an account of his experience.
“When my little girl Ava asked me to go and win her more medals I had not had a single thought of racing in nearly six years. When she was born I made the decision that it was time to put down childish things in order to do something greater. It was time for the next adventure in my life; time to raise a child. When she told me that she wanted to start a winners club for her friends who were good at stuff and had medals I was so proud of her that I don’t have the words to describe how I felt. She also told me that if I wanted to be in her club that I would have to go and win more medals. So I made a phone call. Then my phone blew up. Within a few weeks I was on my way to my first race at Treble Cone Mountain in New Zealand, voted the best view in the world from a ski run.
“I started the day alone. No team behind me and no idea of the days’ events as I had missed the team captains meeting the night before. As I woke up in my hostel bed I noticed that my roommates – the Czech couple – were already astir. Upon our first conversation I was delighted to learn that they were going to Ride Treble Cone that day as well. They offered a ride and I felt almost weightless. It took so little effort to find a ride there that I knew that I was on the right path; I felt myself being carried.
“These days I like to call myself an athlete, and as such anyone who has ever competed knows what was going on inside my head. My mind was locked to the idea of victory. Victory in the classic sense of the word. I wanted to win the race. I was thinking about the temperature of the snow and the correct wax for that condition. The angle and radius of my snowboards side cut. I was trying to imagine the course, thinking of traversing the gates, and all the while desperately avoiding the thought of defeat.
However now that the race is over I know that there was no way to lose because I was never here to win the race. My victory had been defined by the modest goals that I set when I talked to my daughter about racing in the first place. I told her that I was going to go win her a trophy, and I have. I told her that I was going to race against the best, the fastest guys in the world, and I did. I also told her about being injured and looking down for the first time and seeing what was left of my leg. In that moment, tasting the most bitter defeat, I thought that I would never snowboard again. I told her about how I challenged myself to make that happen. I told her about my first run at Buck Hill after my injury and how substantially heartbroken I was at the bottom of the hill.
“That first run at Buck Hill was tough. When I called my old boss, Jeff, at Buck and told him that I wanted a lift pass in order to try and ride again. He asked how I was going to do that with one leg. ‘I don’t know Jeff,’ I said with only a shred of perseverance and even less confidence in my voice. He then asked, ‘are you going to hurt anyone, are you going to hurt yourself?’ My reply, ‘I will not hurt anyone else; I’ll make sure I can stop.’ He gave me the lift ticket for free. I don’t know what he was thinking as I got on the lift wearing a prosthetic leg very capable of allowing a natural gate, but utterly incapable of snowboarding, and not water resistant at all. The C-leg was an intelligent leg equip with a micro-processor that was able to offer only controlled flexion, but with no ability for extension at all. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I remember what he did. He smiled at me. He wished me luck and he told me to be safe. I struggled to get to the lift and fell off of it when I go to the top. I stayed at the top for a while. I didn’t know how I was going to get down only that it was getting colder. That first run was completely heart breaking. I spent it sliding down the hill on my butt. Every time I stopped to stand back up I immediately fell again. By the time I got to the bottom I was in tears. I felt like I had lost something that I loved and the wound was so fresh I could taste the blood, literally. Before my injury I had completed the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) training and became a professional snowboarding instructor. That was my first real job. I had placed so much of my identity in this one activity. I felt that it defined so much of my character that I couldn’t let it go easily…or at all…ever.
“But now, 15 years later as I think back to that point. I had already, in a mere three months after the traumatic loss of my right leg above the knee, succeeded in doing something that I was told I would never do again. I had snowboarded with one leg, and I didn’t hurt anyone. Not even myself.
At the bottom of Buck Hill after that first run I was heart-broken. I was a horse with a broken leg, a chicken in the mouth of a fox. But I already had done so much. And what I had done was in fact the hardest part. I couldn’t see it then but I had chosen not to accept the fact that I couldn’t ride anymore. Sure, it was obvious that it might not ever be the same. But it would in fact her better than ever. It would just take a daunting amount of hard work. I would need to redefine what resilience meant to me through practice and innovation, through hard work and dedication, through perseverance and adaptation. But already the choice had been made and in fact the hardest part was already behind me, for my mind was already focused on HOW I was going to do it. Not IF it was possible. At the bottom of the first run at Buck I thought, ‘if I could only stand back up. Extend my knee.’
“You see, once my prosthetic knee bent there was no way to straighten it back out, or extend it. That thought lead directly to another thought. My first idea. So I headed to the hardware store and bought a spade shovel with a handle on it. I cut the spade end off leaving a handle on the end of a stick/pole. I shoved the pole down into my snowboarding boot. Then with the help of some duct tape I was confident that it would stay there. Now, with my right hand on the shovel handle I could use my arm to extend my knee while I rode and I could stand up while I turned. It was nothing short of glorious. That was day one. That was the first idea. That was the first time that I rode with any kind of control. It wasn’t pretty. Everyone I saw asked me why I had a shovel handle sticking out of my boot and I felt stupid. I was not long until I grew confident on my snowboard. Confident enough even to teach others. I got sick of answering the same monotonous question about the shovel handle. So I asked my mom to hem my snowboarding pans up in order to expose my prosthetic leg. I can only imagine what she was thinking as she did that for me. I’d like to think she was proud, but she was probably just scared. After asking her, she told me she was not scared, only hopeful. Hopeful that I would find happiness.
“Well mom, I’m still wearing those pants. But I don’t need the shovel handle any more. Today I ride with the moto knee developed by a friend of mine, Mike Shultz. Mike is also from Minnesota, and he beat me in the race at Treble Cone. Mike’s knee has not one but two variable rate, fully adjustable FOX mountain bike shocks in it. And honestly if I were to put back on a full pair of pants, I think you would have a hard time picking me out of a crowd on the mountain. In fact this year I plan to enter into fully able bodied races and compete against people with two legs for practice, confidence and maybe even to inspire people a bit.
“After my injury, I was back on snow late that November. December 2nd, 2003 I was at the top of a real mountain in Breckenridge, Colorado displaying for all to see at the DSUSA and the Hartford’s ‘Ski Spectacular’ event my new found ability and regained passion for what would note become, adaptive snowboarding. The same guys who told me that I would likely learn to ski again, but never ride, were thoroughly impressed as I glided down the mountain riding my snowboard with my shovel handle. I had dreamed of competing in snowboarding since Jake Burton and Tommy Simms made it look cool on videos in my not so distant youth. At the time that goal seemed too large to even take a bite. In truth the biggest bite had already been taken and it tasted so good that I could not help but take an even bigger bite next time.
“New Zealand is perhaps the most beautiful place on earth. As I rode up to Treble Cone with my new friends I told them of some of my triumphs and also some of the hardships that I had faced along the way. They told me that I had heart, and hearing that has always made me smile. When we got to the mountain it was covered in clouds. I was sure that the race would be postponed so I took my time getting ready. I used a full role of packing tape wrapped around my prosthetic and my hips to secure the moto knee to my body. It has a tendency to get pulled off if I ride too hard. I noticed almost immediately that no other athletes were at the base, but I was not worried because it meant they would be easy to avoid. Before a race athletes aren’t exactly friendly; at least not the Americans. Then upon speaking to a race official, I learned that the race course was above the clouds and that everyone else was already up top practicing on the course. Shoot. As usual, I was late. I hustled to the top and arrived just in the nick of time to get a bib and complete one training run. I wish I knew my time on that run, as it would be the fastest of the day. Quickly following the training run I was on course for my first timed run, but I missed the second gate and was disqualified. ‘No worries’ I told myself, ‘you still have two more runs.’ But after I missed a gate further down the course on the second run I was increasingly stressed. If I didn’t nail down a clean run my entire trip would be a waste. I would have to go home with no medal for my daughter Ava. So I decided to take it very modestly. My only goal was to make it around every gate. As I got to the last gate I stood up and let out a tremendous holler. Whew; I was openly sobbing. I ripped my helmet off and my face told everyone at the finish line that my time was not important. I had no illusion of a classic victory in the race, but I had completed the course. No medal to show for it, but a trophy is merely a symbol and I was surrounded by things that I could take home to remind me of this, perhaps my greatest victory. Later that day, while in town I ran into a coach from another team. He congratulated me on my finish and told me my run was his favorite to watch because of the heart I displayed as I crossed the finish line.
“That was very easy for me to hear.”