This March, lower-body amputees will compete in standing winter sports like skiing and snowboarding at the 2018 Paralympic Games.
Here, Team USA's Brenna Huckaby, a World Championship gold medalist; Oksana Masters, a three-time Paralympian who's earned two bronze medals and one silver; and bronze Paralympics medalist Amy Purdy open up about the logistics of using prosthetic limbs – and what it's really like to rely on legs they weren't born with in a competitive setting and elsewhere.
Brenna Huckaby, 21, Snowboarder
Huckaby lost her right leg above the knee after she was diagnosed with bone cancer at age 14.
"I was athletic as a child and did competitive gymnastics, so when I first began doing sports as an amputee, using a prosthetic leg felt like a hindrance. Since I learned to snowboard at age 15 during a rehabilitation ski trip with the National Ability Center, I've also learned to see my prosthetic as my leg, and I wear it when I train and snowboard.
"Using the correct prosthetic leg makes the biggest difference. I have three main prosthetics with such different components that they can't be interchanged – one for everyday wear, one for running, and one for snowboarding. Prosthetic legs can cost more than $100,000 each, but my snowboarding one is my cheapest one. It costs about $15,000 for the knee and foot. [Editor's note: Basic prosthetics tend to be at least partially covered by insurance, according to Amputee-coalition.org. Many government and private organizations also provide financial assistance.]
"Suction keeps my snowboarding prosthetic attached. First, I put a liner against my skin. [Editor's note: The liner fits over the residual limb like a cushioned sock to provide a barrier between the skin and prosthetic, according to Amputee-coalition.org.] There’s a ring around the liner that I position flush against my socket, which is the top of the prosthetic leg that's in contact with the body. If the socket is positioned just a smidge off, it can cause many issues, such as hickey-like marks, nerve pain, and blisters. Alternatively, the leg can just completely fall off.
"With my prosthetic, I can’t do certain snowboarding moves as well as other snowboarders with two legs, but I can still do them with extra work. The main difference between us is when I get ready to snowboard, I have an extra step: I put my boot on my left leg and my prosthetic on my right."
Oksana Masters, 28, Cross-Country Skier
Born with a rare congenital birth defect caused by exposure to nuclear radiation, Masters had both of her legs amputated above the knee in separate surgeries at ages 9 and 14.
"When I ski, I take both of my legs off and get into a sit ski, a ski with a custom seat that has been molded for me. I use my core and arms to propel myself on snow with help from ski poles. The biggest challenge during competition is keeping my real legs warm with clothing, because I have poor circulation in the tissue around the amputated areas.
"It's extremely important for my sit ski to be perfectly fit to me. If it's too big, and I shift around, the energy and strength I put into propelling myself forward will be lost. The right fit is everything in my sport.
"I wear my prosthetics legs every day and when I train in the gym – I call them my Lamborghini, because both legs and sockets, which extend up to my hips to keep the legs on via a suction seal, cost about $305,815. This includes three to four custom-made test sockets, which are used to find the proper fit before the actual one is made.
"If I gain or lose half a pound, the socket becomes extremely uncomfortable – it's like wearing five-inch high heels that are three sizes too small for you, with a lot of rubbing, skin breakdown, and swelling around the amputation site. As a dual-sport Paralympian who competes in both cycling in the summer and skiing in winter Olympic games, my weight fluctuates a lot between seasons, and it's always a painful transition that I just have to wait out.
"The best way to understand what it's like to wear two above-the-knee prosthetics is to pretend you're on stilts that hinge midway down, with cinderblocks at the bottom. Although technology has come a long way, and both of my knees have micro-processors and hydraulics to help me walk smoother and more efficiently, they don't exactly walk for me. I still have to initiate every movement for the knee to bend, and just picking up 35-pound weights and walking them to a weight bench can feel like a workout for me.
"One of the most frustrating parts of training for me, personally, is struggling with exercises that require knee control, and I often have to modify common lifts using straps or other modifications.
"I've put so much force on my prosthetic feet that I have literally broken them in the midst of a workout and have had my prosthetic legs lose suction and fall off while doing pull-ups and core work. Still, my prosthetics are very crucial training in the gym and in my daily life – I would not be able to live an independent lifestyle without them."
Amy Purdy, 38, Snowboarder
Purdy lost both legs below the knee at age 19 after contracting bacterial meningitis.
"I snowboarded before losing my legs, so I can say without a doubt using two prosthetics on the slopes is a big challenge. With prosthetic legs, I have about 90 percent less flexibility as I did with human legs. Because I obviously can’t feel my feet, I have to really trust that they're going to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it. On the bright side, my feet never get cold!
"I have multiple pairs of legs, which have cost upward of $30,000 per set. My collection includes snowboard legs to walking legs, running legs, and dancing legs I used on Dancing With the Stars.
"The prosthetic feet I snowboard in – the 'Versa foot' – have mountain-bike shocks for ankles, [which] allow my ankles to compress so I can bend my knees and absorb jumps. I carry a lot of tools with me on the hill while I train in case I have to make adjustments.
"I tend to break my prosthetics from training and everyday use and need new ones every year and a half. I’ve been very lucky that my legs are comfortable enough to do all of the things I love, but it has taken years of dedication and perseverance and a lot of support to get to where I am today."
Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
Visit TeamUSA.org to learn more. The Winter Olympics begin February 8. The Paralympics begin March 8.
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