The Olympic season is upon us and everyone one knows that Olympians are among the best athletes in the world. The Paralympics are also taking place at Pyeongchang, and these athletes are a class apart — perhaps even more impressive. Most of these individuals have had to overcome massive obstacles in order to become astounding adaptive athletes. Here’s your chance to get to know some of the most interesting Paralympic athletes in the world!
Stephanie Jallen is one of the younger Paralympians. She got her start at Sochi at only eighteen years old. She is an alpine skier and won two bronze medals in women’s standing super-G and super combined competitions. Stephanie will be heading to Pyeongchang with hopes to perform even better than her last showing. However, performing well at skiing is definitely not her largest battle in life. She was born with CHILD syndrome (Congenital Hemidysplasia with Ichthyosis and Limb Defects Syndrome). When she was still a baby, only four months old, her left leg had to be amputated. Her left arm ended where an elbow would be located.
Despite facing obstacles from the very start, Stephanie was a determined child and an even more determined adult. She has never let her disability stop her from getting around and she even gained her nickname because of it. Stephanie is called “Hopper” because when she doesn’t wear her prosthetic limbs, she hops to get around. When asked about her disability, Stephanie insists that she would not change anything about herself, including having “normal” limbs. She says that would just make her “boring”. In addition to being a Paralympic athlete, she is also a college student working towards a business degree at King’s College.
Andrew Kurka is a Paralympian and is an alpine skier. Although he has been an athlete throughout his entire life, his sights weren’t always set on skiing. As a teenager, he had dreams of competing in the Olympics…as a wrestler. In fact, as a teenager he was a six-time state champion in Alaska in the categories of freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. Sadly, when Andrew was only thirteen years old he suffered a catastrophic accident in an ATV. Andrew was paralyzed from the waist down. However, he couldn’t let the incident hold him back and he was soon participating in athletics again. Only two years later he tried skiing and fell in love with the sport. In 2014, Andrew had a back accident before the Sochi Olympics but he is anticipated to perform amazingly well at Pyeongchang.
Staci Mannella was the youngest person on the United States Paralympic Alpine Skiing Team during the 2014 Sochi Games. Staci was born with achromatopsia, which is a genetic eye condition. It causes extreme light sensitivity, poor visual acuity, and partial color blindness. Despite the fact that Stephanie cannot see well, that doesn’t stop her from being an extremely fast skier, which is an almost unbelievable feat. Although visually impaired skiers do use a guide, she is considered one of the best and youngest visually impaired skiers in the world. Staci got her start rather young and began competing on the racing ski circuit as a teenager. She has won multiple national championship titles, a world cup gold medal and a bronze at Sochi. She hopes to continue striving towards excellence at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Twenty-three-year-old Thomas Walsh has taken the alpine skiing world by storm and has become known internationally for his talents. Thomas’ love of skiing started young and he was even considered a “rising star” in the United States Ski and Snowboard Association when he was competing as a teenager. However, he was later sideline when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. Ewing’s is a rare form of bone cancer and ultimately Thomas would have to move forward in life with leg and hip impairments. Like so many other Paralympians he didn’t let his impairments hold him back and instead let them propel him forward. He has repeatedly been named as an athlete to watch during the 2018 Winter Olympics. In addition to skiing, Thomas also enjoys acting and he studies performing arts so perhaps we will see him on the silver screen instead of the slope, one day!
Lt. Cmdr. Dan Cnossen served as a platoon commander for the esteemed SEAL Team One. In 2009, they were on a mission in Afghanistan when misfortune fell on Dan. He stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) and lost both of his legs above the knee. After some time in rehab and being fitted with prosthetics, he was soon eager to find himself back in athletics. For his service, Dan was awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star with Valor. He first joined the U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing team in 2010 and competed at Sochi in 2014. In addition to his already impressive accomplishments, he is studying for a Master’s Degree in Public Administration at the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Oksana Masters is one interesting athlete as she competes in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. She has represented the United States in three different sports: rowing, Nordic skiing, and handcycling. In 2012, she took home the bronze in rowing at the London Olympics. She later went on to win Paralympic silver and bronze in cross-country skiing. Oksana was born in Ukraine with radiation-related birth defects. These included different leg lengths. She was also missing weight-bearing shinbones, had webbed fingers, no thumbs, and six toes on each foot. Sadly, she was abandoned at birth by her parents and left in a Ukrainian orphanage. At seven, this extraordinary little girl was adopted by an American and brought home to the United States. Then she had to endure several surgeries, including leg amputations, in order to give her the best chance and life. Clearly she has thrived as one amazing athlete.
When Aaron Pike was 13 years old he suffered a spinal cord injury after a hunting accident. While he was in the hospital recovering, he had the chance to meet Ironman athlete Carlos Moleda. Carlos was a former Navy Seal who was paralyzed on a mission in South America and like Aaron, he was paralyzed. Carlos served as an inspiration to Aaron that his life was not over. Aaron said, “Until then I had no clue that there was any kind of adaptive sports, but I got to see what was out there. Pretty soon after I was out of the hospital I went and jumped on the track and started playing basketball as well.” Before he knew it, Aaron was on his way to becoming an inspirational story and amazing athlete himself. Originally he participated in only the summer Olympics, but soon he also took up Nordic skiing as well!
Andy Soule was a college student at Texas A&M University and a member of the University Corps of Cadets when tragedy struck the United States. Not long after September 11th, Andy left school to join the Army. After completing basic, he was quickly deployed to Afghanistan when a tragedy of a more personal nature occurred – an IED exploded, causing Andy to lose both of his legs. Instead of being overcome by his injury, Andy threw himself into finding out a way to thrive. He attended a cross-country skiing recruitment camp and soon became enamored with the sport. Before he knew it, he started succeeding tremendously and won the bronze at the Sochi Olympics. He later made history when he won the most medals ever by a United States athlete at the 2015 World Championships. He again won two more medals in 2017 and big things are expected from him at Pyeongchang 2018.
Nikko Landeros and Tyler Carron
In one of the most amazing stories of the Paralympics, sled hockey stars Nikko Landeros and his teammate Tyler Carron began their careers together. The two were close friends in high school. One night they were changing a tire after a school dance when they were hit by another vehicle. They both became bilateral amputees as a result of the accident. Both Nikko and Tyler had been members of the wrestling team before their accident. Nikko had also played hockey for much of his life and soon found his way to sled hockey and he encouraged Tyler to join him. The two became teammates again, first for the Colorado Avalanche sled team and then on the United States National Sled Hockey Team. Since then, the two have both become Paralympic gold medalists and was as won multiple world championships.
Brenna Huckaby didn’t start off on the path of snowboarding, although she was always an athlete. As a young girl, she was a gymnast and had dreams of pursuing the sport. However, in 2010 she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer. This led to her right leg being amputated. As soon as she was fitted with her prosthetic she began to delve into other ways to remain athletic and she found snowboarding. She moved from the warmth of Louisiana to the slopes of Salt Lake City and soon began training and competing. Although Brenna took a break in 2016 to have a daughter named Lilah, she quickly returned and began competing in the 2017 season and is set to make a good showing at the 2018 Winter Paralympics.
When Amy Purdy was only nineteen years old she contracted Neisseria meningitis, which is a form of bacterial meningitis. The illness was so severe that she almost died as a result of septic shock. She endured losing both of her legs to amputation, and she also lost both of her kidneys and her spleen. Amazingly, Amy lived to tell the tale and has since lived an unbelievable life. Her father gave her one of his kidneys two years later and Amy has since continued to thrive and make her father so incredibly proud. Amy has also been blessed with an amazing personality, not to mention beautiful looks. It’s no surprise that she soon embarked on working in both the modeling and entertainment business, even appearing in a Madonna video.
Amy’s Amazing Accomplishments
Amy also knew she was meant to continue being athletic and threw herself into adaptive sports. She won a bronze medal at snowboard-cross at the 2014 Winter Games. She is possibly one of the best-known Paralympic and adaptive athletes after capturing the hearts of the United States when she appeared on Dancing With The Stars. She was the first Paralympic athlete to do so and was teamed up with Derek Hough. The two accomplished many impressive dances together and even took second place! Amy has also given a TED talk and engaged in a speaking tour alongside Oprah Winfrey. The busy athlete also penned her memoir entitled On My Own Two Feet. She won a bronze medal at the 2017 World Championships and will be at Pyeongchang!
Mike Schultz has been a competitive athlete for the majority of his life. In 2008, he was in a snocross race when he flew off the snowmobile and suffered a severe compound fracture to his knee. Ultimately, his leg had to be amputated. Mike was definitely not going to let the injury hold him back. Instead, he designed his own prosthetic knee which actually has a patented linkage system and a mountain bike shock. Soon, he won an adaptive motocross silver medal at the X-Games. Mike felt as though prosthetics for adaptive sports needed to improve so he founded BioDapt Inc in 2010 which has made his prosthetic knee (the Moto Knee) available to other amputees around the world. Mike as also taken the gold medal at the X Games and the Winter X Games. In 2010, he was inducted into the Athletes with Disabilities Network Hall of Fame in the U.S. in 2010. In 2017, he won a bronze medal in banked slalom at the World Championships and is definitely one to watch at Pyeongchang.
When Evan Strong was seventeen years old, he was in a horrific accident at age when he was skateboarding and was hit head-on by a drunk driver on a motorcycle. Evan’s left leg had to be amputated below the knee. Before his accident, Evan was already an athlete. However he soon traded in the skateboard for a snowboard after being fitted with a prosthetic. Since then, he scored big time at the inaugural snowboarding competition at Sochi in 2014 and is expected to follow a similar success at Pyeongchang. He is looking to take gold in snocross and banked slalom.
Before becoming paralyzed, Kirk Black was in the United States Army and was also an active athlete having raced motocross for twenty years. However, in 2007 he competed at the National Veteran Wheelchair Games in Track and Field and first came across a sport he had never seen before – curling. Soon, Kirk tried the sport and realized he loved it. However, he faced the struggle of not having anywhere to practice as a native Texan. Instead, he began to travel back and forth to Madison, Wisconsin. Although many say that curling often takes years to master, Kirk quickly excelled and went from novice to competing at the Paralympic Winter Games in only three years. He is also one of the oldest people competing and his nickname is “Grandpa” at forty-eight.
A lifelong athlete, Steve Emt, was a former basketball player at the University of Connecticut when he had a vehicle accident in 1995. He continued his love of sports and said he attempted different sports for seventeen years, including basketball, until he found curling. Once he found the new sport he began to thrive and soon he was excelling. He became a member of the United States’ team and competed in his first World Championship in 2015. Steve recalled the beautiful moment of when he received his team jersey and gear and how emotional it made him on his long journey. He is now a part of Team USA at the Paralympics at Pyeongchang.
In 1994, Penny Greely lost her leg in a horrific train accident. Penny was determined not to let the accident hold her back and instead threw herself into sports. Originally, she played wheelchair volleyball but soon she got into curling. Penny considers herself very fortunate to play a sport she loves and to be able to travel around the world meeting amazing people. She said, “I’m very blessed. Just meeting people from different countries, especially in curling, the camaraderie between teammates and different countries and bringing us all together, to me is so amazing.” Penny and team have secured a spot at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, and they are sure to perform well. Penny is also a standout as she is a woman on the curling team and the majority of her fellow teammates are men, including Steve Ent and Kirk Black.
Anybody who meets Jimmy Joseph raves about his amazing attitude and positive outlook on life. However, Jimmy had to overcome some major obstacles to get to where he is now. In 1987, he was working for Waste Management in New Jersey and collecting leaves. Jimmy recalled, “I was dumping leaves from a garbage can. A guy, I didn’t see him coming, bam, just nailed me between two trucks.” Sadly, Jimmy lost both of his legs in the accident. Although he was initially upset about the loss he said he quickly thought about the tragedy in another way. Jimmy said, “After I asked the doctor where my legs were, I turned over and cried for five minutes in my pillow.” He believes that forcing himself to persevere was important in order to have a good life and he chooses to face them with a “go get ‘em” attitude.
Jimmy’s New Outlook
In 2004, he met an occupation therapist named Marc DePerno who introduced him to adaptive sports. Marc is another person who has fallen under the spell of Jimmy’s charismatic personality and recalled the first time he came to play basketball. Marc said, “He came to basketball the following week and had so much fun, not to mention brought a lot of laughs to the other participants. Jimmy’s humor and energy is contagious.” Soon Jimmy began participating in other sports until he found curling. He refers to it as “chess on ice”. As for advice to those who may face similar obstacles, Jimmy says, “You’re only as disabled as you want to be. It’s not the disability. It’s the ability in people that matters.”