Will We Ever See a Bionic Winter Olympian?

With more sophisticated prosthetics, skiers and snowboarders are trying to break the same ground blazed by Oscar Pistorius at the 2012 Summer Olympics

Olympics prosthetics Roundy
Courtesy of Nicole Roundy

At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Oscar Pistorius showcased what can happen when incredible athleticism is combined with cutting-edge prosthetic technology when he ran against his normally abled peers in the 400 meter race. The South African sprinter set the bar high for amputees, proving that they could compete at the highest level imaginable. (He also set off a controversy over whether his limbs afforded him some sort of advantage.)

But for winter sports, as the world will see in less than two weeks in Sochi, there are certainly incredible athletes yet thus far there is no cold weather equivalent to Pistorius. Experts and athletes disagree about why, and whether it’s even possible with today’s prosthetic devices for an amputee to compete against normally abled athletes in winter sports. But it’s certainly true that winter sports present a unique series of challenges for amputees.

In some ways, the Paralympics are even more complicated than their sister event. In order to make the competitions fair, participants are grouped into one of ten categories based on their disability—eight for physical impairments, one for visual impairment and one for intellectual disabilities. There are technically only five sports in the Paralympics: ice sledge hockey, wheelchair curling, biathlon, cross country skiing and alpine skiing, but within some of those sports are several events. This is the first Winter Paralympics to include snowboarding, for example, which is still lumped into the alpine skiing category. In other words, the range of disabilities athletes at the Paralympics are working with is incredibly diverse—and the obstacles they face unique to their disability. The athletes who are pushing the boundary between normally abled and disabled competitions tend to be those competing in ski and snowboard events, but even then the challenges are unique to each individual.

For elite athletes like Nicole Roundy, an above-the-knee amputee and the fifth-ranked snowboarder in the world in women’s standing snowboard cross, finding the right prosthetic is an ongoing process. Devices used for athletics have to be able to endure sweat, wind, rain, dirt and heavy use. Specialty prosthetic devices for competition are expensive and rarely covered by insurance. And finding a device that both fits properly and optimizes your performance can take years of searching. Roundy says that it took her years to find a prosthetic that worked. “There’s a bazillion different ways that you could set up a snowboard,” she says. “Finding the right one can be really, really frustrating.”

On top of the general challenges of sports prosthetics, the winter elements add complexity. Snow has a habit of working its way into everything, so devices have to be waterproof. The cold temperatures turn the metal prosthetic into a heat sink—pulling heat out of their body and putting the amputee’s limb at higher risk for frostbite. And winter events themselves present their own set of special hurdles—for lower limb amputees, rather than interfacing directly with the ground, their device often connects to a board or set of skis. Which makes prosthetics for skiers and snowboarders all the more difficult to build, hone and use.

While there are all sorts of prosthetics designed to help people walk and run, there aren’t nearly as many specialized devices for winter sports. “When I first started snowboarding there was really only one option available,” Roundy says, and then stops herself. “Actually when I first started there were no options available.” Even now, the knee she’s snowboarding on is not designed specifically for snowboarding. No knees are. And the challenge of fitting doesn’t stop there. In order to simulate the type of movement that a knee and ankle would provide, skiers and snowboarders have to artificially tilt, wedge and tighten their prosthetic into position. “Every single person has a different setup,” says Roundy. “There may be people riding on the same foot, but they might have different sockets. And there may be guys in the same weight range but they might have the knee setup completely different.”

It can take years to figure out the best setup for a person, and in that time an athlete might try out a handful of different knees, feet, elbows and ankles. Eventually, they’ll get setup on something that works well enough for them to train again, and for some, like Roundy, that training leads them to the Paralympics. But when you ask athletes and prosthetists whether they think an amputee could take the next step and compete in the Olympics, their answers vary wildly.

Those who are skeptical of seeing a Pistorius on skis point out that skiing and snowboarding are intrinsically different from something like running. “Skiing involves strength and balance but it doesn’t require force, or self generated propulsion,” says Robert Radocy, an amputee and President of TRS Inc., a company that manufactures prosthetics for sports. Runners use their body to create energy, while skiers use gravity for propulsion and alter their course using fine-tuned adjustments of their skis. For those with lower-limb prosthetics, those adjustments are hard to make. “With an amputee it’s got to go from their body through a socket and down to the boot to get to the ski,” says Bill Beiswenger, cofounder and owner of Abilities Unlimited, a prosthetic and orthotic laboratory in Colorado. “There’s a whole lot more involved to get that ski to turn than if it’s just the foot planted,” he says. Radocy agrees. “Maybe in science fiction [there are] some possibilities for that, [but] that is technology that doesn’t exist right now.”

But not everybody is ready to give up so fast. Brian Bartlett, an amputee who spent years building prosthetics just so he could compete in extreme sports like skiing and downhill biking is convinced it’s possible. “If I were a bit younger, I could do it,” he says. And that’s not just hubris, Bartlett bested normally abled downhill bikers for years using the prosthetic leg he built himself. Rick Riley, an amputee turned prosthetist agrees. “So much of adaptation and being competitive with people with all their limbs is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the equipment you’ve got, and maximizing your strengths.” Riley was a member of the US Disabled Nordic team in the ’80s. He competed and held his own against normally abled cross-country skiers for years. “I beat this German dude in the World Masters in Austria, and everybody else had legs. I knew he was better than me at uphills, and in the downhills is where I beat him.”

Roundy points to some male snowboarders who are already running normally abled times like Evan Strong and Mike Shea, but she says that the technology isn’t quite there to get her on the Olympic starting line. “For me, if they can figure out how to make a knee that I can control with my brain, then yeah!” she says.

Even the most optimistic say that it will likely be years before somebody hits the Olympic slopes on a prosthetic leg. “It’s probably a good 10-20 years away,” says Bartlett, who dreams of a day when amputees and non-amputees compete on the same hills. For him, the key is pediatric prosthetics. Kids who grow up with amputations rarely have access to specialty skiing or snowboarding prosthetics at an early age. If kids with amputations could start training at the same time as kids without, the field would certainly be far more level. “That’s part of integration, my ultimate evil plan,” he says, laughing. “It’s not that I’m trying to create a super athlete, but if you give kids the opportunity, they’re going to learn so quick.”

For athletes, it’s likely to take some combination of genes, money and luck. And many prosthetists are eager for that athlete to come along. For them, it doesn’t really matter if their patients want to ski in the Olympics, climb Mount Everest, or ride a horse into the sunset—they just want to find the right device to help them do it. “The worst thing I can ever tell anybody is that they can’t do something,” says Beiswenger. And if they want to compete, he says, he’ll do everything he can to let them do it.

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