A stranger dressed in all black, except for the pop of white on his hood and the band of his abyss-like goggles, called out Zach Sherman’s name as Sherman balanced with the help of a modified ski pole on his snowboard in the lift line at Woodward Park City late last month.
“What’s up?” Sherman responded quizzically. His intonation was friendly, but he clearly did not recognize the man striding his way.
He soon would. Few are the snowboarders who do not know Shaun White’s face.
“Oh, sh--!” Sherman said as White removed his goggles and introduced himself.
“It wasn’t slow motion like in the movies,” Sherman, 37, recalled, expressing embarrassment at his on-camera reaction. “He walked up and was like, boom, ‘My name’s Shaun White.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, I am well aware of who you are.’”
White, a five-time Olympian and the man who holds the record for the most X Games gold medals, made a surprise appearance at Utah’s youngest ski resort on March 15 to present Sherman with a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Based in San Diego, CAF’s mission is to help people with physical challenges participate in sports and activities by providing opportunities and support. CAF spokesperson Christy Fritts said the grant is one of 3,000 the organization will give out through April. It will help cover Sherman’s travel, training and coaching expenses as he prepares to begin competing in adaptive snowboarding competitions.
Twelve years ago, snowboarding became more than a passion for Sherman. First, it became a goal. Then it became a liberator.
“Everything else I do, whether it be just walking on prosthetic legs or pushing myself in my wheelchair or most any other sport, I’m at a very big disadvantage,” he said. “Snowboarding has always been the great equalizer. When I get clipped into a snowboard and start to go downhill, I’m not the slowest person. I’m keeping up with the pack, even passing some people.”
Sherman admits he’s always liked to pass people. His favorite sports came with a side of adrenaline: rock climbing, skateboarding, skydiving, etc. That’s also why he bought a Yamaha R6 motorcycle in 2010. That same summer, he and a buddy started racing each other as they rode toward Sherman’s home near downtown Harrisburg, Penn.
Sherman said he could feel his bike start to “wobble” from the speed.
“And,” he said, “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m going down. Please aim for the grass.’”
Sherman lost three of his limbs on-site — his right arm below the shoulder and both legs at the knees. He’s lucky to be alive, and he knows it.
Instead of dwelling on what he lost, Sherman said he tried to keep looking forward to the next thing. First, he tried rock climbing, but it was snowboarding that stuck.
Now, despite relying on his pelvis and back to absorb the shock when he hits a rough patch, he’s capable enough to keep up with White for a few runs. That includes through the halfpipe, though the three-time Olympic gold medalist was the only one catching air.
“Just seeing him out riding, enjoying life, having a good time,” White said. “It’s incredible.”
White hadn’t volunteered for CAF before, but he was a natural, Sherman said. Because he can’t unstrap from his board, Sherman usually has someone pull him into the chairlift loading zone using his pole. He didn’t want to bother White, but the star volunteered to lend a hand and handled the situation as well as a seasoned coach, Sherman said.
“I think that’s the moment that I was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is going to be a great day. Shaun’s not just here for a publicity stunt. He’s here because he genuinely wants to be.”
Sherman said the competitions he’s training for are the means to an end. Unlike White, he never dreamed of being a professional snowboarder. In eighth grade, when he was still able-bodied, a friend took him to Pennsylvania’s Roundtop Mountain Resort and taught him how to ride. Since then, he’s simply enjoyed the vibe.
That’s true now, too, even as he faces considerably more physical obstacles. But, he believes if he can compete, he’ll get more exposure. And through that exposure, he might awaken more bilateral amputees — those who have had either both legs or both arms amputated — to the sport of snowboarding.
Currently, so few below-knee double amputees snowboard that they can’t compete in the Paralympics. The International Paralympic Committee rules state that a minimum of six athletes from no fewer than three countries needed to compete at a world championship to be viable for the Games. In addition, athletes are generally not allowed to compete against less-hindered athletes. Park City’s Brenna Huckaby became the exception to that rule in the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing after she won a court case allowing her to compete in a more able-bodied class. She won gold in banked slalom and took bronze in snowboardcross.
“I think it is important to kind of get it out there, showcase it,” Sherman said. “So that more people that are as disabled as me are like, ‘Hey, maybe I can give that a try. Maybe that’s something I could do.’”
He’s already started spreading the stoke. The day before he met White, he rode at Park City Mountain Resort with a double amputee with whom he had shared advice on board setup and bindings. Sherman said it took him seven years to design and build his current setup, which relies on the Switch click-in bindings popular in the late 1990s.
“It took me seven years to figure all this out on my own,” he said. “And I was able to just within six months his accident be like, ‘These are the parts that, if you want to snowboard, this is what you can do. Call me if you have any questions. I kind of loved it.
“I hope I can get like a whole little Zach army of bilateral snowboarders someday.”
And maybe one day he can slide up to them and pull up his goggles. And, before he can introduce himself, they’ll recognize him, because few will be the bilateral snowboarders who don’t know Zach Sherman’s face.