For the last nine years, Dew Tour has been the unofficial kickoff to the winter season. And later this week, the action sports event will once again takeover Breckenridge, Colo. The four-day event will feature staple competitions like slopestyle and streetstyle, but something new is claiming the spotlight.
Debuting this year is the adaptive competition, a banked slalom event on the Springmeier trail featuring some up-and-coming snowboarders – all potential U.S. Paralympians.
Helping lead the operation is United States Paralympian – and former Dancing with the Stars contestant – Amy Purdy and her non-profit organization Adaptive Action Sports, which allows fans the opportunity to witness a preview of the discipline before it makes its debut at the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympic Games. It has quickly become the focal point of the weekend, with both the men’s and women’s finals taking place on Friday.
Purdy, 37, started Adaptive Action Sports with her husband Daniel Gale back in 2005, to help provide those with physical disabilities the chance to participate in action sports such as snowboarding.
“We started the organization because, at the time I lost my legs, there were no resources for people like me that wanted to get into action sports,” Purdy recalled over the phone. “I was so passionate about snowboarding – it got me through my darkest days. We pulled together a bigger and bigger community, not just to showcase, but to show the world that if they have a disability, they can still snowboard.”
It all started when Gale sat down with the folks at Toyota, a prominent Dew Tour sponsor, and pitched the idea, which was received with open arms, so much so that the massive car company relayed the idea to the Dew Tour and put a plan in place. Once everything was in motion, Gale and Purdy helped to select the participating athletes, one of which included a rising star by the name of Zach Miller.
Miller, 17, was born with cerebral palsy after he suffered damage to his brain due to the umbilical cord wrapping itself around his neck while in the womb. The damage was to the cerebrum, the portion of his brain that controls both motor skills and muscle functions, while also regulating the body’s growth. The disability is one that challenges Miller daily but has not stopped him from chasing his dreams.
Positivity, as Miller emphasized, has been an important part of his journey – along with vocabulary.
“I know this is going to sound weird, but I really don’t like the term “disability” because I think it has a negative connotation to it,” Miller admitted. “It has, like, this kind of negative sounding feel to it, as though you’re limited and, while in some respects that’s absolutely true, it’s so wrong in many others. We can still get out there and ride just as fast as everyone else.”
It’s something Miller has contemplated greatly in his short time on this planet, clearly. But since he began snowboarding at age 11 and then became a part of the Adaptive Action Sports family, he’s found other words to help him better describe his condition – words that highlight his ability to conquer.
“I haven’t really set a word in place but the first word that comes to me, while it doesn’t really sound great, is ‘obstacle,’” he said. “There’s definitely a hindrance there and it’s definitely preventing you from being able to accomplish certain things, but a disability, just like an obstacle, can be overcome, so you can learn how to work with it, you can learn how to work around it – you can learn how to adapt. I like the way they say we’re “adaptive” snowboarders, rather than disabled snowboarders, it brings across the fact that we can change how we work, the same way snowboarding demands you to.”
For Miller, becoming an ambassador seems like the role he was born to play. In 2013, he was chosen by the Children’s Hospital of Colorado to be their champion, a face of the group, to help out with various events and speak publicly with the corporate sponsors of the hospital. It allowed him to build the foundation for a number of friendships and opened all kinds of new doors, however, it’s the friendships he’s built through Adaptive Action Sports that have become so much more – almost like family.
“If it wasn’t for Adaptive Action Sports, I wouldn’t be at the level I am. We’re all family, we all know each other and it’s definitely a great family-like bond we share,” he added. “One of the great things is having a disability and being with other athletes that have other disabilities, like you get to see someone else that’s going through the same struggles that you are and then, like let’s say they’ve done better in one area of their disability, they can share that with you and then you can improve in that area.”
But with the event approaching, Miller is focused on the task at hand, one that proves to be extremely challenging. When it comes to skills, the young snowboarder lacks endurance. He must battle twice as hard as his opponents because the demanding physicality often leaves his muscles feeling tight and weak – to the point where he’s unable to climb the stairs after extensive workouts.
One of those workouts recently included training with some of the coaches of the U.S. Paralympics team, who have taken notice of Miller and what he’s been able to accomplish. It’s helped keep him motivated and able to prioritize his goals, one of which would be to compete at PyeongChang.
“One of the biggest things in my mind is to earn myself a spot on the U.S. Paralympic snowboarding team,” Miller insisted. “I’ve received some good training with [the team] and I’m also kind of using it as a tryout. I have been invited to train with them after this, which is encouraging. The ultimate goal is not even getting the gold medal at the Paralympics or at a World Cup, it’s passing the experience on to someone else and giving somebody else the trip of a lifetime like I’ve had – even at 17.”
Miller’s mother will be front-and-center to witness her son compete, but unfortunately his father won’t be able to attend, due to an upcoming back surgery. But there will be plenty of other eyes, those of hundreds of thousands of viewers either streaming live on Dew Tour’s website or watching NBC’s accompanying specials. That’s reason enough for Miller to be completely ecstatic at his opportunity.
“The fact that it’s going to be televised and put out there that we can do this is great – I’m really excited for it, for that opportunity to show the world what we’ve got. To be able to stand up and say ‘yeah, I’m a professional snowboarder now, I’m going to Dew Tour’ – it’s really strengthening as a person.”
Almost a decade ago, when Purdy launched her organization, she dreamed of helping athletes in a similar situation to herself, who loved to snowboard as much as she did. Now she’s brought adaptive sports to the forefront, to prove there’s no difference between the athletes or level of competition – and in doing so, she’s building a new generation, like Miller, who want to pay it forward like she did.
“I look back to when I lost my legs, I was told I would never snowboard again – the goal wasn’t to compete at this high level, I just wanted to snowboard again,” Purdy explained. “Now it’s a professional sport and anyone that wants to be a professional snowboarder can!”
Photo Credit (Cover): NatasjaVos