By Kim Constantinesco
Eyes and cameras cast on Mike Schultz at the opening press conference during X Games 2015, athletes like Shaun White, Danny Davis, Jamie Anderson, and Kelly Clark listened with great intent.
A bit apprehensive about his up-and-coming first boardercross race, where six snowboarders fly down the mountain careening around turns, and taking on jumps just to get to the finish line first, Schultz made it well known that as an above-the-knee amputee, he was a long shot to win, unless he “cut the course,” but he expressed great appreciation in just being able to compete.
An accomplished 6-time X Games medalist as an adaptive athlete in snowmobile and motocross events, Schultz is accustomed to handlebars, not a motor-less board carrying him down the mountain.
Despite his newness to the sport, the experience would offer him the chance to test his legs — the one that he was born with and the one that he built himself.
At the beginning of the National Snowcross Tour in 2008, Schultz got bucked off his machine in a qualifying race. On impact, all of his weight landed on his left leg, which caused him to hyper-extend it and shatter everything inside the leg, even doing massive nerve and artery damage.
“We tried to save it [the leg] over the course of a few days but we ran into circulation problems,” Schultz told us in an exclusive interview. “I almost died through this process. My kidneys were shutting down, so I was in a real bad spot. The doctors said ‘In order to survive, we’re going to need to amputate your leg.’ As a professional athlete, that was a hard one to take, but part of the way I dealt with it was designing this new prosthetic leg called the Moto Knee. It kept me busy, kept me occupied. It put a shining goal at the end of the road for me that I’d be back doing the sports I love.”
The thrill of building his own was also the catalyst for Schultz to start competing again in 2009, on the adaptive circuit, but it wasn’t until this year that he got his first crack at X Games gold as a snowboarder.
Just prior to the annual Aspen event, he won two World Cup contests, and was named to the 2018 Paralympic team, where he will compete in South Korea.
“I’m a competitor,” Schultz said. “I love to challenge myself, and push my own limits, and I can’t compete head-to-head at the professional level, so the next best thing is the adaptive classes. My mind still wants to go as fast as I possibly can, but my body can’t quite keep up sometimes.”
Everyday is Leg Day
In Aspen, Schultz looked solid on his solo qualifying run, where athletes get timed going down the course and seeded accordingly for the semi-finals.
“I’m still improving every run that I make,” Schultz said. “I had a little trouble on the first couple features. I haven’t quite nailed the little step up through the corner yet. Hopefully, tomorrow I can get lined up and go for it.”
Because Schultz is an above-the-knee amputee, he doesn’t have any control over his knee joint while snowboarding, so he has to shift his weight into the knee to make it flex. He also can’t pump through the rollers on the course because he can’t pick his foot up, nor can he match the transition on the landings.
“I’ve just got to line up perfectly and hang on,” Schultz said.
The day after his qualifying run, Schultz lined up to finally compete against the other racers. His strategy was to keep some space around himself, because he can’t react as quickly as some of the other riders.
“And I’m hoping I’ve got a little luck on my side,” Schultz said.
However, luck was far from on his side. As he pushed away from the start gate, his body just couldn’t keep up with his mind. Disaster. He broke his heel and had to be carried off the mountain by Ski Patrol, and into an ambulance.
Road to Recovery
Surgery and a huge boot capped off Schultz’s X Games weekend, but his path to a full recovery will certainly be lined with building and adapting more prosthetic legs.
“It’s the ultimate,” Schultz said of having that outlet. “It’s a pretty cool deal. I’ve got a great job and career.”
Schultz hasn’t made any changes to the leg in a while, but he thinks it can always be better, and the changes that he wants to make are big ones. While the icy X Games course wasn’t on his side, the upside to his most recent injury is that now, time is, to make those changes.
Ultimately, Schultz wants to challenge himself every day whether competing or not.
“I want to get the most out of life,” Schultz said. “I hope that rubs off on other people because we’re capable of so much, and there are many people who don’t experience what they’re capable of.”
As Schultz continues to pursue his dreams, it’s clear that climbing the proverbial mountains that he’s encountered has only made his legs stronger.