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In snowboarding slang, the undulations on a trail are called rollers. They often require some work to get over with riders dropping into deep squats and pumping their legs to keep up speed as they surmount each small crest.
The act of pumping gives them energy.
“By standing up against the extra forces in the curve, snowboarders add to their kinetic energy – the energy of motion,” an article titled “Science of Snowboarding in the Olympics” says. “It gives them the speed they need.”
From having a bomb destroy his feet while serving in Afghanistan to the amputation of both his legs below the knee to missing the cut for the 2018 Paralympics despite being rated among the best in the world, life has been a series of rollers for Salt Lake City Paralympian Tyler Burdick. Snowboarding has given him the energy to get through them.
Burdick was in the starting gate Thursday night competing in the banked slalom races at the Beijing Paralympics. Slalom is not his favorite event, nor his best. He didn’t feel ready, having arrived at the Athletes Village in Zhangjiakou less than 48 hours before his race, which was moved up a day because of rain in the forecast. And he was not in top health: His right leg was red, puffy and painful from an infection made worse by too many hours in his prosthetic during his journey to China, a 40-hour ordeal that included going around the no-fly zone over Russia and a four-hour bus ride to the mountains.
Plus, he just had COVID-19, which appeared with no symptoms but stalled his arrival and caused him to miss his best event, snowboardcross.
Knowing all this was a possibility, he still made the trip because, he says, because of his bond with the sport and its people.
“I think one thing that really drew me to snowboarding and what has kept me racing all of these years is the relationships I’ve built with my competitors,” Burdick said this week. “It’s like a family when I’m at these events, it reminds me of being with my Marines, going on deployment. You know? We’re all here. We’re mission-oriented. We have the same goal. Even though our goal is to beat each other, we share that same goal — to win.
“And at the same time, we’re all doing it to own our disabilities. So, we just have this bond. It fills that void of the esprit de corps, the camaraderie that I lost when my naval career came to an end.”
Inside the Paralympic bubble, that sense of shared purpose is strong, he said. Athletes mingle in the village, trading pins and friendly greetings. But that kinship is strangely juxtaposed with the war between Russia and Ukraine.
“It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “As we’re watching the peace in Europe kind of crumble in Ukraine, it is heartbreaking to see that there’s still so much violent conflict in the year 2022. What is wrong with us?”
Burdick knows too well about what the soldiers there are facing. His military career ended, and his snowboard career began, with an explosion.
A hospital corpsman who was hoping to become a Navy SEAL, Burdick was on his third tour of duty, his second in Afghanistan, in July 2010. He was serving with the 3rd battalion 6th Marines, one of the first squads deployed in the Battle of Marjah, when a roadside bomb exploded under the truck he was in.
Burdick’s feet were left mangled. Doctors wanted to amputate. Instead, Burdick chose a process called limb salvage, which meant screws would be inserted into his feet and his ankles would be fused, rendering them immobile.
It worked for him for a while. He relearned how to walk on them and was inspired to rekindle his love for snowboarding after a video of double-amputee snowboarder Amy Purdy caught his eye while he was in rehab. Burdick started training with the National Ability Center in Park City in 2012 and made the team for the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. There he placed eighth in the standing class of the inaugural snowboardcross — a loose term for the event considering competitors went down the course solo instead of four at a time.
Even then, though, he knew his legs had to go. The pain and discomfort had become too much.
“They call it an elective amputation,” he said. “For me, I felt like that was really my last resort.”
Later that year, doctors removed most of his lower left leg. In January 2015, they took most of his lower right leg. A month later, he was back on his snowboard.
He said now he’s a much better rider.
“In 2014, even though I had my feet, I was more disabled than I am as an amputee,” he said, noting he has more flexion in his ankles — better allowing him to pump — and can ride a smaller board because he doesn’t have to cram a bulky brace into his boots.
Burdick wasted no time in putting a bull’s-eye on the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. His new SB-LL1 class (those missing one leg above the knee or two legs below the knee) was loaded with snowboardcross talent, but he quickly established himself as one of the best. So, when he didn’t make the team — the United States had four athletes in the top five but was given only three entries — Burdick felt the Paralympic flame inside him start to fizzle.
“I got my heart broken,” he said.
Not knowing what else to do, he kept riding. He also dug into getting an international business degree from Westminster College, something he’s been working on for about 20 years, the 40-year-old half-joked. When he finally looked up in mid-January, he realized he was having the season of his life. He reached the podium in four of five World Cup races, took third in the world championships, held the No. 3 world ranking and, despite not being on the national team, was selected to compete in his second Paralympics.
Some day he might reflect on what a long, strange and bumpy ride it’s been. But right now, those bumps are just propelling him forward.
“I think I could speak for just about everybody on the circuit that snowboarding is what kind of gave them a sense of life, a sense of purpose, a kind of sense of being a young athletic person again,” he said. “So, yeah, so I’ll always be involved in this sport, even once I’m done chasing the Paralympics. But this year’s got me all fired up, I’m committed to four more now.”
Italy will host the 2026 Paralympics in Milan and Cortino. Consider Burdick pumped.
Utah athletes in the 2022 Winter Paralympics
Matthew Brewer, sitting: National Ability Center athlete & Salt Lake City resident
Ravi Drugan, sitting: National Ability Center athlete
Andrew Haraghey, standing: Westminster College alumnus & National Ability Center athlete
Jesse Keefe, standing: National Ability Center athlete
Danelle Umstead, vision impaired: National Ability Center athlete & Park city resident + guide Rob Umstead
Orlando Perez, sitting (Puerto Rico): National Ability Center athlete, Utah Resident
Arly Valasquez, sitting (Mexico): National Ability Center athlete
Dani Aravich, standing: National Ability Center athlete & Park City resident
Tyler Burdick, SB-LL1: Westminster College alumnus & Salt Lake native and resident
Brittani Coury, SB-LL2: Salt Lake City resident
Noah Elliott, SB-LL1: National Ability Center alumni & Salt Lake City resident
Keith Gabel,SB-LL2: Ogden native
Brenna Huckaby, SB-LL2: Sandy resident
Katy Maddry, SB-LL2: National Ability Center athlete