In the 10 years between 1996 and 2005, Lucas Grossi’s list of addresses reads like an Outside magazine list of the top places to snowboard in the western United States. He spent two seasons at Big Sky, including the winter of 1996/’97, which is when he says he truly discovered riding.
“There was just so much snow,” he says with an obvious desire to go back and relive every turn he made that winter. “I went from dinkin’ around on the hill to being able to drop cliffs. I really felt like I could do anything,”
He followed up that winter with a season at what he still considers his home slope, Red Lodge Mountain. There, he rode with his buddies and snowboard mentors, Stefan Silken and Charlie Blaylock, and occasionally hung out in the old United Parcel Service van they called home. Then he moved up to Big Mountain in Whitefish for a couple of seasons, where he picked up a foot sponsorship from a prosthetic company. He also formed a close relationship with his Kalispell prosthetist, Doug Jack, who, in his office, proudly displays a poster of Grossi dropping off a cliff. Next, he headed south to spend time at Mammoth Mountain in Southern California, followed by a season in Jackson Hole and then two seasons spent riding Snowbowl outside of Missoula. And to cap off his 10-year tour, Grossi returned for another season at Big Sky.
While he was shredding his days away, Grossi learned as he went along. He learned about his prosthetic leg, how he could make it better, what worked and what didn’t. He learned of other aspiring adaptive snowboarders. He learned a thing or two about himself. And he met people.
During his season in Red Lodge, Grossi met a man who would help chart a course for his life in snowboarding—Gordon Robbins, who Grossi describes as a “legend” in the snowboard community and a major player in the United States of America Snowboard Association (USASA). For about a week in 1998, Grossi worked with Robbins at Eagle Mount, a program that helps people with disabilities experience activities that might otherwise seem out of reach.
A year later, Grossi’s phone rang. It was Robbins asking him if he would like to help out with an adaptive division at USASA’s national competition. Grossi answered, “Hell yeah,” and before long, found himself in Waterville Valley, N.H., where he got to ride with other disabled snowboarders and compete in slalom, giant slalom, boardercross, half pipe and slopestyle events.
“To be able to get together with other riders that shared the same problems was amazing,” he says. “It also gave me a clear picture of my own riding.”
But perhaps the best thing that came out of the experience was something Grossi hadn’t heard very much of up to that point: criticism.
“Gordon was the first person to criticize my riding,” he says. “A lot of the able-bodied world thinks that whatever they see a disabled person doing, even if it is just walking down the street, that it is amazing, that it is the best we can do.” Robbins knew otherwise. He recognized Grossi’s disability, and then he looked beyond it to his ability, teaching Grossi in the process that everyone, adaptive or not, could progress with the right amount of support.
Eight years later at the 2007 USASA National Snowboard Championships, 17 athletes from seven different countries showed up to compete in the adaptive division held at Northstar at Tahoe ski resort. Amidst the thousands of people who descended upon the resort for the event, those 17 competitors represented the largest turnout of disabled snowboarders the USASA had ever seen.
For the athletes—which included single leg and bilateral amputees, a paraplegic and even a blind man— the competition in slalom, giant slalom, half pipe, slopestyle and boardercross events provided an opportunity to show the world that their disabilities had not overwhelmed them. For Grossi, the man largely responsible for making adaptive snowboarding a viable competitive sport, it represented a different sort of personal accomplishment, and a gratifying advance for a sport he has dedicated his life to pursuing—a sport that a car accident, which claimed his left leg, almost kept him from ever experiencing.
In 1988, Grossi was 12 years old, the youngest of three avid skateboarders in the Grossi family. Since the divorce of their parents two years earlier, the three boys endured a routine of shuffling back and forth between homes. Summers were spent in Billings with their dad. Come August, they would make the journey to Carson City, Nev., not far from the eastern shores of Lake Tahoe, where they would live out the school year with their mom.
As the summer of ’88 drew to a close and it was time to make the “kid swap,” George Grossi and his three sons began their drive to Twin Falls, Ida., the agreed-upon halfway point where the boys would hop in the car with their mom and continue on to Nevada. Heading west on Interstate 90 on a sunny August morning, the foursome were nearing the town of Big Timber, about 80 miles west of Billings when 16-year-old Thadd fell asleep at the wheel. When their 1982 Toyota Land Rover veered into the ditch, he awoke and made a strong yank to the left, sending the vehicle rolling down the freeway more than a dozen times. Both Jake and Lucas were thrown from the car. Neither boy was wearing a seatbelt. Some 150 feet later, when the vehicle finally came to a complete stop on its side, Thadd and 14-year-old brother Jake were shaken, but for the most part, all right. Their father, on the other hand, sustained severe cuts to his head that stretched across his forehead and a broken bone in his neck.
As for Lucas, he doesn’t remember exactly how far he was thrown from the vehicle, but knew instantly he was in a bad situation.
“I was totally conscious throughout the whole thing. I remember looking down the road and seeing the car. I tried to get up to walk towards it, but I just collapsed,” recalls Grossi, who upon impact with the pavement shattered the bones in his left leg below the knee.
It is hard to imagine the circumstances as lucky, but for the Grossis, a bit of good fortune came their way. Among the first people on the scene were a doctor and two nurses. The three got to work immediately. Lucas was given some anesthetic and remembers having an umbrella placed over him to block out the sun as his leg was stabilized. Before long, he arrived via Life Flight at Deaconess Hospital in Billings where he faced a decision that would help shape the rest of his life.
“The break was real messy,” says Grossi. “Basically when I got to the hospital, my leg was only being held together by the calf muscle.” The complexity of the break—the messiness—left doctors with only two viable options. They could do their best to repair the bones, but due to Lucas’ young age and the fact that his body was still developing, he would most likely experience a host of complications down the road. The alternative was to amputate the leg below the knee, get a prosthetic and move on.
Grossi’s mother, who got word of the accident from a coworker as she was traveling to Twin Falls, immediately caught a flight to Billings, where she listened to the prognosis. She weighed the options and suggested to her son that he choose the amputation. He trusted her. A little over two weeks and three surgeries later, Grossi and his brothers finished the trip to Carson City where they would continue the healing process, both physically and mentally. Their father, George, remained in the hospital until he was able to return home. While he doesn’t remember every detail from his convalescence, there was one sight Lucas’ father says he never will forget.
“Walking the hallways of the hospital, I remember walking behind Lucas and seeing him with only one leg. It was just so hard for me,” he says.
After an accident of the magnitude the Grossi family survived, one might expect to hear stories about a grueling recovery, pain, tears, anger, and perhaps a lifetime of bitterness between family members. But that is not how Grossi describes it.
“My brother may have had some feelings of guilt in the years after the accident, but it has just never been a blame game,” he says. “I just never questioned it. This kinda shit happens every day, you know. People get hurt every day.”
Despite descending into what he refers to on his Internet site, www.original-gimp.com, as a “slump,” Grossi says he had a strong network of support around him as he came to terms with his new reality. A schoolteacher in Carson City encouraged all of her other students to get involved in Grossi’s healing. Of course, Grossi also had himself. With a remarkable sense of self-awareness and pride, he owned his new identity one hundred percent. He even covered his first two prosthetic legs with skateboard stickers.
“Everything was a bit different, but I just accepted it,” he remembers. “Instead of just walking to the kitchen to get a bowl of cereal, I had to use crutches. The only difference is that in the morning most people put on two shoes and I put on one shoe and one leg. That’s it.”
His brother Jake got Lucas excited about skateboarding again. At a contest in Portland, Ore., Jake—who now sells skateboards at his shop in Vermont—witnessed a bilateral, above-the-knee, or AK, amputee rolling his deck by pushing with his hands. He says he could barely wait to get home and share the experience with his younger brother. (Bilateral refers to the absence of both legs. AK and BK are commonly used to abbreviate above-the-knee or below-the-knee when talking about amputees).
“When I saw that kid in Portland,” says Jake, “a light just went off. It instantly struck me as something Lucas could do.”
Within a few hours of returning home, he and his brother were in the garage piecing together whatever they could find to make a skateboard for Lucas. A short time later, Lucas was doing kick-turns on a quarter pipe the boys had erected in their driveway and grinding the curb in front of the house. In fact, he says that he learned to ride a skateboard with one leg before he learned to walk without the help of his crutches, an unlikely accomplishment he also achieved with another favorite sport of his: skiing. From that initial experience, Grossi learned there was no separating himself from his disability. And more importantly, there was no need to.
An avid skier before the accident, Grossi picked it up again at the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School at Alpine Meadows near Carson City. During the winters in Nevada, he raced with the Far West Disabled Ski Team, competing with a three-track setup that single-leg amputees use, employing one regular sized ski and two other mini skis mounted to the bottom of two poles. While he enjoyed three-tracking for a while, Grossi knew he was missing out on something. As he puts it, “I was tired of sinking to my eyeballs in powder and watching my buddies float effortlessly by.”
As the last summer before he started high school drew to a close, Grossi had the choice of staying in Billings with his dad or returning to Nevada. For a number of reasons, including a change of scenery and a change of friends, he chose Montana and enrolled at Billings Senior High School.
Having already made friends in Billings, the transition to a new school for his freshman year was relatively easy, and he recalls his adolescence unfolding in a routine fashion with only one small exception: He started snowboarding. Despite skiing his entire life, and having achieved some success at three tracking, Grossi says he was instantly hooked on his newfound sport. At 17, during his senior year in high school, he moved in with a friend in Red Lodge, just south of Billings, to be closer to the ski area and ride out his last year in high school.
Upon graduating, he hit the road with his girlfriend and followed the Grateful Dead all summer long, something he chuckles about now. That fall, he found himself sitting uncomfortably in an office at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo., where he considered enrolling. Struggling to come up with a schedule that would allow him enough time to snowboard, his would-be advisor spelled it out for him.
“Finally, she told me I had to make a decision between school and snowboarding,” says Grossi. “So I did.”
Since that decisive moment in his life, Grossi’s life has pivoted around his commitment to his sport.
“Adaptive snowboarding is my default thought. It is always on my mind,” he says. “I am always thinking about ways that I can create more opportunities for people that want to ride.”
In 2001 USASA held its national championships at Mammoth Mountain. Grossi helped organize the then fledgling adaptive division and competed as well. The turnout was small—only five adaptive participants showed up—but the event proved promising in other ways. At the championships Grossi met a guy by the name of Steve Van Doren, who through his shoe company, Vans, ran High Cascade Snowboard Camp (HCSC). Located on Mt. Hood, HCSC organizes camps for people of all ages who want to learn how to snowboard. Grossi says that throughout their time at nationals, he pitched Van Doren the idea of a camp for adaptive snowboarders. Although Van Doren seemed receptive to the idea, nothing came of it. For three months, Grossi called Van Doren every day. Finally, the two struck a deal, and the “Gimps on the Glacier” snowboard camp was born.
The agreement was pretty simple, Grossi says. HCSC arranged the venue for the camp, and he did everything else, from finding amputees to attend, to helping them get outfitted with equipment, arranging transportation, coaching and whatever else was needed. He was a one-man band. According to Grossi, at that time the camp was the only place in the world where a group of disabled snowboarders could come to learn and ride together. Ultimately, Gimps on the Glacier was less about the snowboarding than it was about creating a positive environment for people to get together, grow and learn from each other, he explains.
For the next couple of years, Grossi took on an ever-expanding role in adaptive snowboarding, establishing himself as the unofficial ambassador of the sport. He worked tirelessly to increase the adaptive community’s involvement with USASA and to grow the adaptive division. He continued to host camps on Mt. Hood. And he also got tired. Having volunteered his time for USASA and for his camps, his ski-bum lifestyle started to catch up to him. He says he had waited tables in restaurants and checked ID’s at bars in towns all across the West. Eventually, a dead-end feeling became too hard to ignore. In 2003, he had what he affectionately calls his “quarter-life crisis,” and made up his mind to move back to Missoula, enroll in school and pursue an education.
Grossi admits to feeling totally lost upon arrival at the University of Montana. He knew that he wanted to take some time away from thinking about adaptive snowboarding and refocus his energy, but wasn’t exactly sure what that meant. Eventually, he decided to major in Communication Studies. For two years, he settled comfortably into school life until the day he got a phone call from Tom Collins, then director of the USASA, asking if Grossi would be interested in helping out with nationals again. Grossi couldn’t resist. USASA hadn’t organized an adaptive championship for two straight years since he returned to school.
Around this same time, Amy Purdy, a girl Grossi had met years before at nationals, had just created a nonprofit organization with her boyfriend called Adaptive Action Sports (AAS), with the mission of getting people with permanent physical disabilities involved in action sports. Purdy, who became a bilateral BK amputee after a harrowing battle with bacterial meningitis, started corresponding with Grossi about the prospects of teaming up with AAS. As he puts it, “The idea of working with others on adaptive snowboarding was a rush. It was a good decision.”
Grossi became Winter Program Director for AAS in 2005. Since then, the sport of adaptive snowboarding has resumed its promising rise. In 2006, 11 adaptive riders from three countries competed at nationals. And the 17 competitors who participated last year made 2007’s event the biggest yet.
Last winter also marked a stellar season for the AAS snowboard camp, which Grossi now runs in association with Windell’s Snowboard Camps at Mt. Hood. Ten adaptive riders showed up and each one pushed the envelope a bit further, a result of Grossi’ determination and ability to get the right people involved. Riders like Nicole Roundy and Iraq war veteran Keith Deutsch showed up at the camp. Roundy is the first above-the-knee snowboarder AAS has ever encountered.
“Lucas is adaptive snowboarding,” says Roundy. “He is the biggest part of my progression in snowboarding.”
Deutsch, who lost his leg in Iraq, has taken up snowboarding since his return, and also competed in wakeboarding and rock climbing in the Extremity Games, the adaptive athlete version of the X-Games.
“He just goes ALL the time,” says Grossi of Deutsch. “Where other people hike the half pipe 5 or 6 times a day, he hikes it 12. He rides so hard, he breaks one or two bolts in his leg every day. We are definitely breaking ground with that kid.”
Since Grossi reacquainted himself with the world of adaptive snowboarding, a world he largely helped create, the sport has gained substantial support and has helped more than a few people experience the freedom of riding on snow.
“I’m certainly not a magician or anything. Anyone could do this,” he says. “I just love it more than anyone else.”
Grossi’s love goes a long way. Along with helping to organize the upcoming USASA nationals, he plans to facilitate a snowboard camp in Colorado in December, do some consulting work in New York before the end of the year, lead a camp in Oregon and another in Colorado in February, and then go to Canada in March where he will continue to work on getting adaptive snowboarding into the 2010 Paralympics as an exhibition event and hopefully as an official event in 2014—all while continuing to work toward a degree from UM. But, as he humbly puts it, “I am a better person when I am on snow. I want to share my experience and what it’s done for me. Mentally, spiritually and physically.”
Check out Lucas Grossi’s website at www.original-gimp.com. To learn more about Adaptive Action Sports, go to www.adaptiveactionsports.com.