Looking for a wild, adrenaline-filled, thrill-seeking rush this winter? Take a look at accessible adventure sports such as snowmobiling, ice climbing and bobsledding.
When Garrett Goodwin takes the reins of a snowmobile, the 23-year-old’s energy feels like it’s supercharged.
“[I love] just racing and always finding and pushing the limit, the limit of the machine, to make it go as fast as I can, light, handle bumps as good as I can,” says Goodwin, a Grand Rapids, Mich., resident. “As a rider, I want to push myself physically to the edge, I love pushing that limit.”
He loves overcoming them, too.
A spinal-cord injury hasn’t deterred him as he’s still motoring over hills, courses and competition. Goodwin has turned into one of the top adaptive snocross racers, earning a gold medal at the 2015 Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo.
As long as he’s snowmobiling, that’s what matters. He’s just one of many thrill-seeking, adventure-sports enthusiasts with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D) who brave cold temperatures, snow, ice and frozen extremities.
In July of 2011 while competing in an able-bodied snowmobile race in central Wisconsin, Goodwin came up short on a big jump. He rotated forward, landed on his head and his bike came down and drove him into the ground, leaving him a T-10 paraplegic.
Only nine months later, Goodwin tried out adaptive snowmobiling. He made a last-minute decision to compete in an adaptive snocross race in Lake Geneva, Wis., and he finished third in his inaugural race. As the green flag dropped, he felt back at home.
“It was really cool in front of the hometown crowd,” Goodwin says. “I could hear them cheering me on every time I went past. It was pretty incredible.”
Goodwin acknowledges the sport is as physically demanding as any he’s played and mentally it’s more demanding than any he’s ever competed in, including high school football, tennis and track, motocross and able-bodied snowboarding.
Weather conditions change, so does the comfort level on his seat along with modifications on his safety belt. Since he has less control on a snowmobile than he did before, the snowmobile’s seat design and attachment are especially important. Goodwin’s helped design a seat with a suspension system. But he’s heard of other people even using Velcro to keep themselves strapped in.
“The seat is the biggest thing for me. We developed this seat that has a shock on it so it gives me that extra cushion,” says Goodwin, a Grand Valley State University senior and engineering major. “It’s sort of like my legs would’ve done before. I can swivel side by side and have the ability to lead in and out of corners to maintain stability.”
His suggestion for first-timers: stay on flat ground first. As you get more comfortable, try out some small hills and move up from there. Balance is key.
“Core strength is a big part of it. For developing that strength, you need to be more on flat ground with less rough, choppy hard bumps. That is the best starting point,” Goodwin says. “You learn your balance, learn your control, things like that.”
Pain Can Be Worth It
Balance and control are just as important in adaptive ice climbing as well. You’re hanging from a rope and balancing your body and your mind.
Sean O’Neill admits if you think about it, the sport can be pretty humorous. You go through all this pain to feel good about yourself. And yet, to the 50-year-old, it’s all still worth it.
“You’re swinging your tools, ice is breaking off, getting on your neck (and) going down your shirt. If you have water ice with running water, then you might have water going in your sleeves. It’s just funny. It can be punishing. But that’s just part of the joy of it. It’s weird,” says O’Neill, whose brother, Timmy, is one of the three co-founders of Paradox Sports, an adaptive sports facility. ”It’s like you’ve accomplished this little task. You have a little more time under your belt of feeling good about yourself, which is important, (if you) think about depression and stuff which is often a part of a disability and stuff. A disability changes your whole identity.”
It certainly changed his.
Nearly 25 years ago, O’Neill sustained a T-12 injury after jumping off a bridge into the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tenn. He went from a guy who was standing up all the time to a guy who was sitting down for all of it. It had a major effect on him. Then, he found adaptive sports, particularly ice/rock climbing and tried out a clinic with Paradox Sports in Ouray, Colo.
While there, a climber named Malcolm Daly, gave him an idea of attaching a progress capture device to the bottom of an ice ax that O’Neill later developed into an idea of his own. A few years later, one of O’Neill’s first significant breakthroughs came as he was climbing a kids’ wall. It’s where he found an intense focus and even developed a new climbing method where he didn’t have to pull up on his belay rope.
With three ice tools, or cramp-ons or an ice ax, attached to ropes on his waist, O’Neill swung one tool and placed it into the wall and pulled himself up on it, then swung a second one above that and pulled himself up. Then, instead of pulling at the lower ice tool, he swung the third tool in. That way if the top ice tool popped out and he fell, he’d have the other ice tool to fall back on instead of just the belay rope.
“I only made upward progress by placing the ice tools and pulling myself up,” O’Neill says. “So here I kind of discovered a climbing method that was independent of the rope. Of course there are little ropes attached to me that I’m pulling on. But I placed those ropes.”
Paradox Sports Executive Director Doug Sandok says there are two main methods of adaptive climbing: climbing the rope with a rope suspension system and direct ascention — climbing directly on the ice.
“We customize it. We look at a person’s ability and willingness to go for it and we devise a system that gives them a real climbing experience,” Sandok says. “We can rig up a mechanical advantage system, so even someone with little motion in the arms can do rope.”
Now, try combining those first two sports, add even more speed, ice and some G-forces and you may have the craziest adaptive winter sport — bobsledding. Steven Jacobo can attest to that firsthand.
He remembers his first time on a track in Calgary, Alberta, at the Calgary Olympic Bobsled track in mid-November 2014. For three weeks, he’d been training, learning the tracks and trying to memorize the turns in his head.
Then, they send you down the course. You’re dropped from the bottom of a ramp and they say “good luck” before you start flying down a windy, icy and cold track at speeds ranging from 90-120 mph and G-forces reaching as high as four times your body weight on some turns. Jacobo admitted he forgot everything he’d just learned and went for the ride.
“It was pretty scary my first time. But I still wanted more,” he says. “I started liking it more and more. You’re going really fast and it’s scary at the same time. But I still wanted to keep doing it.”
Jacobo, 25, just completed his first season with the U.S. Adaptive Bobsled and Skeleton Association. Injured in 2013, he was paralyzed after a skiing accident at Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort in Lake Tahoe, Calif., sustaining injuries to his T-9/10 vertebrae.
An extreme sports enthusiast, Jacobo had already started doing wheelchair motorcross at skateparks soon after his injury. Then, Dave Nicholls contacted him on Facebook. The director of the United States Adaptive Bobsled and Skeleton Association wanted to know if Jacobo would be interested in trying out.
But Jacobo didn’t think he was strong enough just yet and declined. Nicholls didn’t give up, contacting him again last summer and asking Jacobo if he’d like to head to Canada to try out. This time, Jacobo accepted.
“I’d never done anything like that before. I didn’t know too much about bobsledding before or after my accident,” Jacobo says. “ … I thought it’d be something fun to try and that I could possibly like. It’s a new sport. I thought I’d see how it was.”
As for the bobsled itself, it’s like a traditional two-man bobsled, but it has a roll cage on top. Jacobo says you sit on the nose of the bobsled, scoot each leg into the sled, adjust your legs so they’re inside, then put your seatbelt on and adjust yourself inside the four-part harness that holds you into the sled. There’s a spot for a second person, usually an amputee. There are also monobobs or sleds pushed, steered and braked by just one athlete.
Bobsleds don’t have steering wheels. Instead, drivers use a pulley system, or a lever in the middle, to turn and move about as they fly down the track.
Bobsledding is still trying to earn a berth in the 2018 Winter Paralympics. And Jacobo hopes to be there. In just a year’s time, Jacobo has made the national U.S. Adaptive Bobsled team. He finished 11th in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in the 2014-15 Para World Cup season and bettered that with a sixth-place finish in Calgary, seventh-place and ninth-place finishes in Park City, Utah, this season.