Josh Dueck never felt so free as when he was skiing, or when he was coaching skiers; as long as he was in the mountains. He loved skiing and the snow so much that he had the word “Freedom” tattooed across his stomach.
That was in 2004, not long before an accident left him paralyzed below the waist. Freedom, as he had known it, seemed to have vanished the moment the 23-year-old’s spinal cord was severed during that crash on a jump at Silver Star Resort in British Columbia, Canada.
But Dueck’s doctor offered encouragement; he assured the Canadian skier that with determination he’d eventually be back in the mountains on a sit-ski, doing what he loved.
A frightened Dueck clung to those words and the hope they inspired. He strived to become a champion sit-ski racer and now owns a Winter X Games gold medal, a Paralympics silver medal and a para-Alpine world championship medal.
His incredible story — this is a man whose skiing career didn’t flourish until after he became paralyzed — was shared this week as an inspirational film appropriately titled “The Freedom Chair,” an eight minute video directed by Mike Douglas of Switchback Entertainment and presented by Salomon Freeski TV. A longer version last weekend was named best mountain film at the Banff Mountain Film Festival (the accompanying video contains portions of the longer version.)
“I was impressionable and scared beyond words, but after what the doctor told me I was able to drive forward,” Dueck said in an interview. “That was the reflex for a couple of years and what unfolded was nothing short of sensational, and nothing short of magical. I would have never predicted my life would have been so fulfilling and rewarding in any capacity, with or without a disability.”
Sit-skis, or mono-skis, enable paraplegics to ski in a sitting position, using torso movements to turn, and customized poles with ski blades to plant before turns. Dueck, after a long period of rehabilitation, picked up the technique quickly.
He had been a freestyle specialist, more into expression than racing. He was coach of the Silver Star Freestyle Club and with every bit of progress Dueck achieved his for students and friends became more amazed.
“As a coach, Josh influenced some of today’s best professional skiers,” said Derek Taylor, editor of Powder magazine. “But what he has accomplished since his injury is an inspiration to everyone, even if they’ve never clicked into a pair of skis. The level of athleticism he displays in the Chatter Creek [powder] segment of ‘Freedom Chair’ blew away all expectations.”
Sit-skis are easier to handle on packed snow and require close proximity to chair lifts, so embarking on a racing career seemed the obvious choice for Dueck, who benefitted from the Silver Star adaptive sports program. The athlete excelled after his first year on the World Cup circuit in 2007 and hopes to add a gold medal to his Paralympics resume at the 2014 Sochi Games in Russia.
He then plans to represent Canada at the World Championships in 2015 and retire from competitive skiing to focus more on his real passion: the backcountry, with its pristine beauty, its trees and deep powder.
Dueck is already pioneering backcountry skiing on a sit-ski, displaying remarkable prowess, and that might be the most remarkable aspect of his comeback. “Skiing in powder takes a lot more confidence because you have to be willing to go hard and fast, or otherwise you get stuck,” he said.
The Chatter Creek segment of “Freedom Chair” shows Dueck enjoying the type of freedom able-bodied skier enjoys, carving turns among snow-covered trees and catching air and landing in explosions of powder and making the next turns.
“The sensations that I get from movement in my freedom chair is so much greater than any of the sensations I had as an able-bodied skier,” he said. “It’s so much more liberating and freeing.”
Dueck credits Douglas for coming up with the title of the film and for naming his sit-ski. Freedom Chair, he said, could not be more appropriate.
The athlete hopes the film will serve “as a conduit to really inspire and motivate all walks of life, whether they’ve had a spinal cord injury or some thing else traumatic in their lives … just to get out there and give it their best because there’s so much potential if you’re willing to embrace it and see things that way.”
Said Douglas, who was friends with Dueck before his life-changing accident: “He was the first friend I’ve ever had to have to go through something like this, and to have watched him deal with everything and the way he lives his life with such an incredible attitude makes me never want to complain about anything ever again.”
There are few complains these days, because snow is on its way.