By Kim Constantinesco
For professional skier Josh Dueck, it ironically took going upside down to help him see things right side up.
After many years of pursuing his dream of becoming an Olympic skier, Dueck decided to retire due to financial reasons. He still loved the sport, and wanted to give back in a big way, so he took on a coaching job helping kids achieve their dreams on snow. However, he never expected his retirement plan to lead to injury, and subsequently, propel him back into competition.
In 2004, Dueck, a native of Kimberly, British Columbia, had the worst crash of his life while he was coaching. One day he decided to join some of Canada’s top young skiers during a practice session. He performed a speed check on the jump, and knew he didn’t have enough velocity to make the landing. So, he hiked back up and dropped in again with such energy that too much speed became the issue. He had a brief moment where he could have bailed.
“It was a battle of ego and intuition,” Dueck said.
Dueck sided with ego, went off the jump, and did a front flip. Due to the extra speed and air he caught, he over rotated his flip and overshot the landing hill. Upon slamming to the ground, he immediately broke his back and became a paraplegic.
“I think it was a little bit of destiny manifesting itself for me in that there were some lessons that I needed to learn in life,” Dueck said.
However, his “everything happens for a reason” outlook is still accompanied by one regret from that day.
“The only thing that makes me sad from that day would be the impact that my accident had on other people,” Dueck said. “There were a lot of kids, coaches, volunteers, and parents involved that were directly and indirectly impacted by my decision to go off that jump. The kids seeing it sticks out the most to me because it’s traumatizing to this group of athletes that range in age from eight to 16. They had to witness something horrific and life-altering.”
Dueck also felt bad for “Woody,” the man responsible for the safety of the training site.
“He had an awesome, safe, training environment to practice in, and he was in control of the air site that day,” Dueck said.
Despite a warning from a head coach who was also one of Dueck’s mentors, he ignored the risk and went for it anyway.
“He forewarned me,” Dueck said. “He said the jump had a little bit of a flat take-off to it so whatever you do, don’t do a front flip. He read my mind knowing that’s what I wanted to do. I just ignored him. I went ahead and did what I wanted to do. I can’t imagine it felt very good for him when he took great pride in making sure everyone was having fun and staying safe. I blew him off. I don’t feel good about that.”
From Ski to Sit Ski to Paralympics
After surgery and nine months of rehab, Dueck learned how to ski again, this time in an adaptive ski known as a sit-ski.
He took 2005 to explore his world from his new seated perspective and in 2006, he embarked on his first year in sit-ski racing. By 2007, he reached the professional level, and set his sights high — on the 2010 Paralympic Games in his home country.
“I was incredibly fortunate to be asked to run the Olympic torch into the Vancouver,” Dueck said. I literally brought the Olympic flame into the city.”
Dueck had all the support in the world at his first Games. Nothing made him realize it more than seeing his family and friends smiling under the fireworks at the opening ceremony.
“When I was at the opening ceremony in Vancouver, it just hit me on a whole other level that my accident impacted so many people other than myself,” Dueck said.
Dueck went on to win a silver medal in men’s slalom.
A Flip Provides the Same Kind of Joy as a Medal
Despite the second place finish, Dueck was down after the Paralympics.
“I was devoid of goals,” Dueck said. “I was devoid of things to work for or to be passionate about, and that kind of opened up this gateway for me. To fill that void, I drank, a lot. It was no longer the apres-ski drinking I enjoyed. It became a daily priority, it took over my life, and it nearly ruined me.”
Just a year before Dueck’s Paralympic debut, he married Lacey, who quit her job and bought a one-way ticket to be there for Josh right after his accident while they were dating. Even she couldn’t brighten his spirits after the Paralympics.
He had to come up with a new goal; something that would bring his life full circle, literally and figuratively. He was craving that internal battle with ego and intuition again.
That’s why Dueck decided that he wanted to do a backflip on his sit-ski.
“It was cool opportunity to experience something new, fun, and exciting,” Dueck said. “One of the primary drivers for me in doing the backflip was doing something that I really wanted to achieve in an environment that I really believed in.”
Doing a backflip on a sit ski takes a lot more effort and concentration than doing one on two skis.
“When you’re an able-bodied person doing a backflip, you have a lot more control on takeoff and landing, and overall rotational speed,” Dueck said. “You can do it off of a lot of different types of jumps. You can do it with a little speed. You can do it with a lot of speed. You can manipulate a lot of things with your legs. In a sit-ski, my ability to control the rotation is different. We were really dependent on finding the perfect angle for the jump and the perfect landing.”
Dueck and his team set off for Whistler to practice on an airbag first. The intention was to get it down on the airbag and then the next day, take it to snow. However, unfavorable weather conditions altered their plans, and he had to wait two weeks before he could attempt a landing on snow.
The wait was well worth it as you can see from this video.
On to the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi
In contrast to the Paralympics in Vancouver where Dueck had all the support in the world, the Sochi Games proved to be very different.
“It’s so far away, the culture is so different over there and I had no family,” he said. “I also had concerns over security for my wife and our newborn daughter, Nova. I didn’t feel comfortable about them going over there. Other than my Canadian team, which is family, I was all alone, but it allowed me to focus on the sport in a different way.”
In the late summer of 2013, Dueck took a bad spill while training in New Zealand. He tore his rotator cuff, wasn’t skiing well, and wasn’t having much fun.
“I thought I was on my way out,” he said. “I came home from my trip to New Zeland and said, ‘You know what? I can’t end on that note.’ By December and early January, I was skiing a lot better.”
Still, he had to dig deep to perform well.
“There are qualitative and quantitative aspects,” Dueck explained. “The qualitative is to have a good time, put on a good show, show the sport to the world in all of its beauty. Then there’s the quantitative in how do you want to do this? Do you want to finish in the top top five; do you want to win?”
His first event in Sochi happened to fall on March 8, the 10-year anniversary of his accident. He took home a silver medal in men’s downhill.
“For me, the downhill is intense,” he said. “It’s crazy and there’s a lot of risk. It’s far harder than doing a backflip. My goal was to cross the finish line in one piece.”
Dueck was so close to taking home a gold medal that he had a little bit of trouble accepting his second place finish. That’s why he got on the phone with his sports psychologist, Dr. John Coleman. They “re-calibrated and did some introspection,” and less than a week later, he won gold in men’s super combined.
“I’m participating in sports at a higher level now than before my accident,” Dueck said.
Looking to the Future
As committed as Dueck is to his sport, he’s just as dedicated to his life off the snow.
In addition to tending to his family, he’s the Vice President of the Live it Love it Foundation, which aims to bring outdoor recreational activities to the disabled so adventure is available and affordable to everyone with a disability.
He also serves as an ambassador for the High Fives Foundation, which raises money and awareness for athletes who have suffered life-altering injuries.
“My vision in life is to celebrate community and motivate and inspire others through a life of action while having as much fun as possible,” Dueck said. “My goal is to leave the world a better place than when I found it.”
And that is worth flipping for.