Mike Schultz remembers roaring, hard. It was just after 9am, and he lay alone, face up, sprawled flat across cold, churned snow. A second previously, before instinct prompted him to return the appendage to its natural position, his left foot sat disconcertingly on his chest. For the first time, he could examine the sole of his boot while still wearing it.
Schultz, now 32, had broken bones before – a wrist, an ankle, his clavicle. But accidents tended only to happen when he rode dirt bikes, in the summer, across dusty trails near his Minnesota hometown. Not once had he fractured a bone riding a snowmobile. A miracle, really – for 10 years, he’d been racing in snowcross, the rapid extreme sport in which riders hurl high-performance snowmobiles across ragged tracks. He’d been a respected professional for four.
Today, 13 December 2008, was different. In the snowcross off-season, when pros cut their engines and enter a six-month existence away from the cold, Schultz had switched to a new race group, Warnert Racing, a Minnesotan “super team” headquartered 80 miles from his home. It meant familiarising himself with a new machine, which was proving troublesome.
Schultz’s first event of the season, the previous weekend, had ended in disappointment. His suspension lacked response, the handling required fine-tuning and his racing style needed adjustment. Schultz had remained outwardly positive – he’d taken the vehicle to the shop, made some amends – but doubts on its condition lingered. Today was an opportunity to reassert his position at the pinnacle of the sport. Still, he reasoned, he could only do his best with what he had.
When the green flag fell, Schultz’s machine stuttered. Its tracks failed to grip the snow, while rivals raced into the distance. For a snowcross rider to win a major event, he must first get through a qualifier, which for Schultz meant placing top five. It wasn’t an impossible task – he’d quickly rejoined the pack following the initial misfire – but one made tricky by Bobby LePage, the pro currently in fifth place. Halfway through the race, Schultz made a charge. He hadn’t ridden the course before (it was new to the circuit, carved into a slope in a ski resort) and while snowcross tracks are never flat, this was especially rough.
On a steep downhill, Schultz’s machine started flapping. His control waned, his grip began to fail. Schultz, who is tall and muscular and lauded for an aggressive riding style, was unable to hang on and he was flung violently. His knee shattered into pieces.
“It was a compound fracture,” he says. “It severed the nerve and the main artery that supplies my lower leg. The worst part was I’m lying on the snow and the medical personnel came over and unzipped my pant leg and I could just hear the blood gush out, like somebody dumped a gallon of water on the ground – it just went whoosh.”
After enduring three major emergency operations (maybe four, Schultz can’t remember exactly), a dismayed doctor walked into his room.
“My kidneys were shutting down,” Schultz says. “My life was in the balance. ‘We need to amputate in order to save your life’, is basically what he told me.”
Snowcross is synonymous with danger. Snowmobiles weigh around 230kg, courses are violent, jumps can rise close to 10m in the air. Countless racers have broken bones, lost limbs or suffered near-fatal collisions. Earlier this year, Caleb Moore, a respected freestyle rider, became the first athlete to die at the Winter X Games when an attempted backflip went awry. He was 25.
Schultz’s story isn’t particularly original: plenty of other athletes have experienced similar fates, some worse. But few have done what he did next.
Five-and-a-half-weeks after his accident, Schultz and wife Sara walked out of a meeting with Chip Taylor, an experienced local prosthetist. Schultz’s left leg had been amputated above the knee, and he’d been fitted with a replacement limb equipped with microprocessor technology, a prosthetic component that helps patients regain and maintain optimum stability. Schultz used it for everyday stuff, walking mostly, but wasn’t entirely happy.
Low-extremity prostheses, those rigged with microprocessors particularly, are pricey. (An entire package, which includes a custom-made socket that links the residual limb to components beneath, can cost upwards of £40,000, despite the technology being around 15 years old.) They’re also incredibly fragile. For Schultz, fragility presented a problem. He’d recently discovered the world of adaptive extreme sports – high-octane, highly competitive races for amputee and paraplegic athletes – and his ultimate post-accident goal had subsequently evolved beyond basic recovery.
Schultz had ridden dirt bikes since he was 13 and snowmobiles before then. Initially, the appeal lay in freedom, a teenager escaping the confines of family life. But more recently, racing had come to define him. He loved the noise, the speed, the drug-high rush of pre-race adrenaline. And he missed not being surrounded by people who thrived on those things, too. Schultz didn’t want to eke out a middling existence away from the activities he loved. What he wanted was a return to competitive racing.
But no suitably robust prosthesis existed. “For riding a snowmobile you need to have your knee bent,” he says. “It needs to absorb the impact of riding over bumps, to allow yourself to stand up or sit down, balance side to side. Right away I knew it just wasn’t going to work.”
Drawing on the countless hours he’d spent fine-tuning racing machines, Schultz set about building a new leg, one that could handle high levels of physical stress. Few doubted his ability to succeed. After his final operation, when friends visited Schultz in hospital, they joked he’d build his way back into competitive racing no matter what his physical condition. Chip Taylor agrees. “Mike’s a very gifted fabricator,” he says. “He knew he needed to make something different in order for it to work to his potential and his function.”
Ashvin Pimpalnerkar, a British orthopedic sports consultant, says impetus constitutes the single most important element of an individual’s ability to recover from trauma. “The first thing is motivation,” he says. “Mind over matter. People, through sheer mental strength, can overcome disabilities.”
Schultz had mental strength and he also knew the right people. He called in a favour at bike part company Fox, who supplied a box of raw components, most importantly a 2in stroke shock that offered the kind of resistance, flexion and extension other prostheses couldn’t. Then he began drafting prototypes.
“The biggest challenge was getting the range of motion similar to the real knee,” he says. “[Once] I got the geometry of that all figured out, I hit up the machine shop and started cutting parts.”
Schultz worked a tight schedule, often toiling late into the night. He began the project in March. By late May, he was competing in an adaptive dirt bike qualifier for the Summer X Games, which had just added an adaptive motocross race to its programme. He took silver, which meant he’d made the cut. Later that summer, at the event proper in Los Angeles, he came second again. The following year he won gold (in a race he was just content to be allowed to compete in.) He’s since claimed four more firsts, one on the dirt bike, three on the snowmobile. When, two years ago in the Pro Vet snowcross championship, Schultz beat a field of able-bodied riders – all over 30 and with both legs – he confirmed his status among the sport’s legends, and then promptly retired from non-adaptive competition.
I ask Mike if he ever really believed he’d make it back to such a high level of competition: “No, I was just happy to be on my dirt bike again.’
But you’ve been winning! “Yeah. I’ve been on quite a roll.”
When Schultz first encountered the world of adaptive extreme sports, he was stunned by the volume of participating athletes. Schultz knew amputees rode dirt bikes and snowmobiles, did things he was personally invested in. But he didn’t know about kayaking, mountain biking, skateboarding and weight training. He didn’t know amputees surfed, rode horses, even water-skied.
“I’d never really been around any other amputees until that point,” he says. “That’s when I was like, ‘Holy cow, there are a lot of other people who could benefit from this kind of thing’.”
Inspired, and with time to spare, Schultz spent the next year-and-a-half fine-tuning his prototype, creating a production-ready unit appropriate for use in a huge variety of adaptive sports. In summer 2010, he founded BioDapt Inc producing the Moto Knee, a high-impact prosthesis able to withstand heavy recreational use. He sold his first the following year, to Keith Deutsch, a retired US army sergeant. Deutsch paid just over $6,000 [£3,700] for it; Schultz has since sold nearly 100 more.
Deutsch lost his right leg in 2003, in Iraq, when his battalion was ambushed. Now, he takes part in high-profile adaptive snowboarding events, despite lacking any prior experience in competitive sport.
Jim Wazny, 42, is another Moto Knee success story. In 2001, the prosthetics technician lost most of his left leg in a freak motocross accident. Now he uses a BioDapt prosthesis to compete annually in the adaptive events across the US. Michelle Salt, 28, is a Canadian realtor and boardercross athlete, who came off a 10-day-old motorbike in January 2011, losing her right leg above the knee. Next year, she’ll wear a Schultz-made device at the Sochi Winter Olympics.
The future of everyday prostheses seems bright: microprocessor technology is becoming increasingly accessible. Chip Taylor believes a brain-sensitive variant won’t be far away. “It might still be a microprocessor knee,” he says, “but it will probably utilise either brain activity or neurologic function to promote a faster, more positive means of support, stability and function.”
But demand for sports-suitable prostheses beyond the adaptive sports community is minimal – few labs will venture into such a consumer-limited market. “Just about all prostheses used for extreme recreational sports have been developed by the patients who needed them,” Taylor says. Without the personal investment of a forward-thinking, technology-savvy amputee, improved recreational prostheses will remain undeveloped. For now, Schultz’s will do. Countless adaptive athletes wear the Moto Knee in competition and plenty end up on the podium.
Has Schultz ever been beaten by a Moto Knee-wearing competitor? “One: his name is Max Gomez.”
A talented dirt bike rider who lost his right foot last year in motocross, Gomez, 19, uses Versa Foot, the partner to the Moto Knee. At a qualifier this year, the pair lined up next to each other on the start line. “We had this epic battle,” Schultz recalls.
“We passed each other back and forth three times, and I ended up taking second right behind him.”
He describes the loss as bittersweet. Schultz loves to win, but recently he’s taken solace in Gomez’s progression. “I was definitely bummed,” he said. “But on the other side, it was exciting to see this kid win – it was his first adaptive event using my equipment.”
Taken from the Esquire December issue's 'Adventure' supplement: 42 pages of the most incredible explorers of land, sea and snow, illustrated with breaktaking photography.