Paralympian Josh Dueck toured Elk Valley high schools last week, talking to students about how he realized his dreams without the use of his legs.
On June 14, he spoke at Elkford Secondary School about the fateful day in 2004 when he was coaching the Silver Star Freestyle Ski Club in Vernon.
To get his students ready for Canadian Junior Nationals, Dueck was preparing to demonstrate a front flip. The snow was a bit soft and sticky that day because the sun was baking it and Dueck thought he would need extra speed to clear the gap.
“What I didn’t realize was that I had set a track and the sun had glazed it over,” he said.
As he set up for the jump, “everything in my body was screaming at me to stop,” he told the assembled students. “I knew it was a bad idea. Some people call that your intuition. I like to call it your body’s wisdom. I just got really good at ignoring that because my identity was being able to go bigger and further than other people.”
“I just kept dodging bullets until one day I didn’t.”
He overshot the jump, smashed into the ground, broke his back and severed his spine.
“Not exactly my best day,” he said. “I over rotated and landed on my chest. The weight of my skis dislocated my back. For the first time in my life I could appreciate how my actions and the things that I say actually affect other people.”
Dueck could feel nothing below his waist but when they put him on a spine board the nerves in his back momentarily ground together and he experienced an explosion of pain.
At the local hospital a doctor had the unenviable task of telling the 23-year old that he was paralyzed.
He did it in a unique way, said Dueck.
“You know what Josh, you are going to rock the world from a wheelchair,” is what the doctor reportedly told him.
“Of course I knew what that meant,” said Dueck. “But in a very dark moment he just opened the window up a little bit and let in some light.”
The doctor said that he’d soon be back hitting the slopes with his friends but now he’d be using a sit ski.
Dueck was also comforted by visits from a girl named Lacey.
“She was a total babe,” he said.
She would later become his wife and the mother of his children.
“She is so phenomenally selfless,” he said. “She gave me an opportunity to experience life in a really unique way.”
Despite his disability, Dueck met his new challenge with the courage and determination he would need to compete at an international level.
The native of Kimberley B.C., started skiing at the age of 13 and at 15, he learned the joys of flying through the air by joining a local freestyle ski club. He had ambitions of making a living as a professional skier and competing in the Olympics.
He put years into improving as an athlete but despite giving his best effort, he did not have the necessary financial backing to make it as a pro skier. Eventually the bills stacked up, he went broke and was forced to quit, which was why he went into coaching in the first place.
And now, though his Olympic dreams had ended, his Paralympic journey had just begun.
He completed his rehabilitation in one-third of the expected time and was soon back on the ski hill, winning multiple medals at the X Games and a silver medal at the 2010 Paralympics in Vancouver.
After returning home with his medal, Dueck found himself without a goal.
“I like to call this chapter my Paralympic hangover,” he said.
After some soul-searching the young athlete decided to attempt something that had never been done before: he would become the first sit skier to perform a backflip.
He knew he had to be careful or risk further injury. His training included landing practice flips in a foam pit. He then began practicing jumping off a ramp and landing on an air bag at a training area of Blackcomb Mountain.
A crew from Heli &Snowcat Skiing at Powder Mountain built Dueck a ramp off which to launch, and on Feb. 3, 2012, under sunny skies and surrounded by his friends, he landed the flip.
The video of his accomplishment went viral and caught the attention of television host Ellen Degeneres and Dueck got to be a guest on her show, he said.
Dueck then told the students about how he finally won his Paralympic gold at Sochi in 2014 with a remarkable come from behind victory in the men’s super combined.
He entered the final race of the super-G in fifth place after a few disappointing performances then laid down an incredible performance for the win.
His latest project is fatherhood. He has a three-year-old daughter and a six-month-old son.
WorkSafeBC arranged Dueck’s presentation as part of continuing efforts to prevent injuries in young workers.
At the end of his talk, Dueck left the students with a final thought.
“The message that I’ll leave you with is the importance of being ruthlessly honest with yourself,” he said. “Know what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are.”