By Emily Karcher Schmitt
At age 19, athlete Amy Purdy had both legs amputated below the knee due to a sudden illness that culminated in septic shock. Two years later, she competed in the United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association’s National Snowboarding Championships and medaled in three events.
Today Purdy’s prosthetic sockets and feet–formulated to provide the necessary combination of stiffness and flexibility to commandeer a snowboard–are prominently displayed in the eye-opening exhibit “Everyone Plays,” on the first floor of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Purdy has since cofounded Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit that engages athletes with disabilities in action sports. She was the only double amputee in the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games, where she won a bronze medal in snowboard cross.
“Everyone Plays,” a 15-foot-long glass-enclosed exhibit, celebrates the innovation of various disabled athletes who pushed the envelope to get back in the game. The breed of creative trailblazers highlighted here through their equipment has been integral to adaptive sports ever since the first wheelchair basketball program emerged for wounded veterans in the 1940s.
This video shows Amy Purdy’s first snowboard cross run in the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games
At age 29, Buddy Elias lost one of his legs below the knee due to a rare disease. Before losing his other leg last year, he continued to pursue snowboarding by crafting a homemade adaptive board, also on display, which combined a pool noodle, a crutch and materials from a local hardware store. He now faces life as a double-amputee by pulling off skateboard tricks and grinding on curbs with his wheelchair.
“How many people sit on the couch who are totally able to do pretty much anything, and they just sit there and say, ‘Oh, no, I can’t ski?’” asks “Everyone Plays” curator Jane Rogers, rhetorically. “Well, yes you can, you can try. Look at these guys! If you can stand on your own two feet, you can pretty much do anything, because these people can’t, but they do.”
Rogers began collecting for the exhibit after the family of Ray Werner–a pioneer in wheelchair basketball rehabilitation– donated the basketball number that hung on his wheelchair, his championship National Wheelchair Basketball Association jacket, and other items pertaining to his World War II injury and its aftermath.
“This is a really great story,” Rogers says. “Mr. Werner was hit by sniper fire in World War II and paralyzed. We have the letter that the Army sent to his parents in a scrapbook of his. He really impressed on me that he was wounded, paralyzed, but he didn’t let that stop him from becoming a basketball player,” Rogers says. Werner continued to help disabled veterans throughout his life by installing hand controls in automobiles for disabled drivers.
After the donation by Werner’s family, Rogers–primarily a sports and entertainment curator–set out to collect more representations of adaptive sports stories. “I knew I wanted a hockey sled from the U.S. Paralympic team so I contacted U.SA. Hockey and they emailed information about Chris Douglas,” Rogers explains.
In this video posted to Youtube by Chris Douglas, a Go-Pro camera captures Douglas and his team as they practice sled hockey in Florida.
Douglas, paralyzed at 19 after a spinal cord surgery, donated his hockey sled–a custom-built structure held together with layers of duct tape–and his hockey sticks that were modified to both control the sled and push a puck across the ice. In 2015, Douglas used the items as the starting forward for Team USA’s gold medal win in the International Paralympic Committee Ice Sled Hockey World Championships. Today both sled and sticks are on display in the exhibit.
Perhaps the most eye-catching artifact in the exhibit is Mike Schultz’ larger-than-life retrofitted motocross bike and protective gear. Schultz, a longtime extreme sports athlete, lost his left leg above the knee in a snowmobile accident at the age of 27, but five years later, he won the gold medal in adaptive motocross at the 2013 X Games. He has since not only won the most number of gold medals in adaptive sports in X Games history, but he turned what could have been a personal limitation into an opportunity to help others. His company, BioDapt Inc., produces high-impact prosthetics for adaptive sports participants.
Smithsonian curator Rogers says she hopes to continue to grow the collection and create a detailed web-version of “Everyone Plays” because innovation in adaptive sports is a growing field and the 50th anniversary of the Special Olympics is coming in 2018.
“Each one of these objects on display tells the story of the object itself, but also the story of the person who used it and adapted it to fit their need,” Rogers adds. “This exhibit is about the innovation in these sports, as well as the technology and the opportunities that adaptive athletes now have. There are so many more organizations and camps now for adaptive athletes,” Rogers says. “We’ve come from wheelchairs to motocross bikes.”
“Everyone Plays,” is on exhibit at the National Museum of American History through March 2017.