“We all struggle with our own disabilities, our own challenges, whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual,” says paraplegic freeskier Josh Dueck. “This was a deeply personal quest. There was a ton of risk involved with the backflip in the sit ski. It had never been done. There was a lot of fear.”
On February 3, 2012, as he sat atop a massive jump at Powder Mountain Catskiing outside of Whistler, British Columbia, Dueck was asking all the right questions and carefully listening to his intuition. Was he prepared and in the right head space? Was the jump built properly? His friend, skiing superstar Sarah Burke, had died just two weeks earlier from injuries sustained in a ski crash in Park City, Utah’s superpipe. Her husband, Rory Bushfield, joined a group of Dueck’s closest friends to cheer him on that morning.
Moments later, Dueck sped down the inrun, eyed his takeoff, popped his 40-pound sit ski upward, extended his arm backwards, spotted his landing, and became the first paraplegic skier to land a backflip. He repeated the feat six more times that day. The simple act was bold, humbly defiant, and deeply human. The footage went viral. Networks picked up the story. Ellen DeGeneres presented Dueck with a monogrammed parka.
In 2004, the now 31-year-old was coaching some of Canada’s best freeskiers. While prepping a course for a competition in British Columbia’s Silver Star Resort, Dueck entered a jump too fast, overshot the landing, and fell 100 feet to land on his chest. When he regained consciousness, Dueck had lost the use of his legs.
“I knew deeply and intuitively that it was a bad idea,” recalls Dueck of moments before that jump. “I don’t want to say that I knew it was going to happen, but all the signs were there. My ego was overriding my intuition.”
As the reality set in for Dueck that he would spend the remainder of his life in a wheelchair, he doubled down on his passion for skiing. Within a year, he was learning to sit ski. In 2010, he won a silver medal for Canada in Whistler’s Paralympics. And in 2011, he won gold in the X Games mono ski cross. But he remained passionate about freeskiing. The idea for the backflip first cropped up in conversation with friends while he was still recovering at the hospital.
“Here we were eight years later," says Dueck. "It was a challenge that had risk to it—to do a backflip on a sit ski. It had never been done. It was simply an internal challenge—a battle of ego and intuition.”
Adventure: How long did you prepare for the backflip?
Josh Dueck: Three months. In the middle of December I was hitting the foam pits. I ran into the head coach of the Canadian Aerials Program, Nick Bass. He gave me all of the core information that I needed to understand the physics and the geometry of executing this trick safely on snow. We built the exact jump that Nick recommended onto an airbag on January 19. I have never been so scared in my life.
A: That was the same day that freeskiing legend and your friend, Sarah Burke, passed away after her accident in Park City.
JD: We just got the phone call that Sarah had passed away. I just fell over. We were in a place that Sarah absolutely loved, and it was a good afternoon to be doing what we were doing. Instead of being afraid to hit the airbag, I said, I know exactly what Sarah would do. She loved to be afraid and overcome those challenges. There was no question. I said, “We’re doing this.” Her energy carried through what we were attempting to do that day.
A: A few weeks later, when the conditions lined up to take it to the snow, was Sarah in your thoughts?
JD: A great group of friends came out to help build the jump—including a couple of Sarah’s good friends. Rory Bushfield, her husband, came back on the snow for the first time since she had passed. The best moment for me was not doing the backflip—it was seeing him smile so big and so bright. Just for the tiniest of moments he was able to enjoy being out there.
A: You’ve said you aren’t going to try and push aerials—there’s no double backflip in the works. What’s on the agenda for next year?
JD: My plan as an athlete is to continue with the Canadian Ski Team and race from now until Sochi Paralympics [Russia, 2014]. Ultimately ski racing is like a meditation in motion for me. When I’m blasting down the hill at 120 kilometers per hour, it’s one of those environments where my focus narrows. My mind becomes incredibly calm.
A: What's next?
JD: I also really love freeskiing and want to continue working with Salomon Freeski. Film is such a good way to tell a story. I’m also involved with a group called Live It Love It. Our vision is empowerment through adventure. We just did an adventure camp up in Whistler. We took a group of kids from North America who had recently had spinal cord injuries and took them bungee jumping, trekking, mountain biking, and road bike riding.
A: What’s it like to know that your story and your struggles have deeply inspired a lot of people out there?
JD: I did my best to continue having fun with the life that I had. To know that those actions have inspired others to do the same is awesome. However you want to look at it, we all face challenges. If through my story I can inspire hope in others to overcome those challenges, then I feel like I’m doing something good.