Faced with a devastating injury that resulted in the amputation of his left leg, snowmobile racer Mike Schultz was at a crossroads in his life. He was an able-bodied competitor in 2008, but was thrown off his machine, leaving his leg grossly hyper extended. Schultz, who was known as "Monster Mike," thought his athletic career was over. But the thrill of racing and desire to compete again led the then 27-year-old to his garage, where he worked for weeks to build his own prosthetic leg. Schultz brought his competitive spirit and determination with him.
The racer from St. Cloud, Minnesota began a business, BioDapt, that creates prosthetics for below and above knee amputees. The Moto Knee, which he uses, is designed for high-impact and high-speed athletic competition. The Versa Foot allows for shock absorption and flexibility. To test the products, Schultz participated in different sports, eventually competing on the snowboarding slopes. While he had little snowboarding experience prior to his accident, Schultz became hooked. Through extensive training, he earned a gold medal at the 2017 U.S. Paralympics National Snowboarding Championships in the snowboard-cross event. Today, Schultz is an Paralympic hopeful. But even if he does not compete at the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, his presence will be felt. Almost the entire U.S. Paralympic snowboarding team and over 100 total athletes use Schultz's equipment, which has quickly grown to a powerhouse in the adaptive equipment industry.
Sports Illustrated caught up with Schultz to chat about his journey, future plans and what means to be an Paralympian.
(Editor's Note: The following interview was lightly edited and condensed).
Nihal Kolur: So what got you interested in snowboarding in the first place?
Mike Schultz: Well I'm from Minnesota and have always lived there. And my competitive career actually started in the late '90s racing motocross, which then turned into racing snowmobiles professionally. I turned pro in 2003, racing with the best in the world and living my dream as a professional athlete. I didn't even think about snowboarding until after my accident.
NK: What happened in your accident?
MS: In 2008. I had a wreck during a race in Michigan, which led to the hyperextension of my left leg and subsequent amputation.
NK: What happened next?
MS: It kind of threw me into a spin for a while and I didn't really realize what was next. After I recovered, I realized I wanted to keep going and keep participating in a sport I really enjoyed. So I had to come up with my own prosthetic equipment to get me back into riding and racing and all that, as well as to have a positive focal point, rather than being depressed about my accident.
NK: But how could you get back into racing after such a serious accident?
MS: I developed this leg [points to leg] to get back into action. It is actually really cool; I patented a linkage system on it and got a mountain bike shock on it. It allowed me to get back into sports, and I realized there were a lot of other athletes that could benefit from it. So that's when I started thinking about my business, BioDapt, and started to kind of make this equipment useful for other sports. That's when I got into snowboarding.
NK: What was your inspiration to keep going after everything in your life changed?
MS: It was kind of crazy because my wife and I talked about it, it was a big question. Should I continue on or try something different? But after the first time I got back on the snowmobile, I was like "I love this, I cant give it up." And that's kind of the enjoyment I get from it and that's why I decided to keep going. That's why I'm partnering with Team Kellogg's for their GetsMeStarted campaign. I had that moment where I wasn't sure if I could keep going, but the feelings I get when I race, they just motivate me to push myself even further.
NK: But, you're a Paralympic snowboarder, not a racer.
MS: [laughs] But I didn't snowboard at all before my accident. I wake boarded a little bit in the summers, but never seriously. The whole purpose of me getting on a snowboard was for product development, because I wanted to make our equipment useful for different adaptive sports. Snowboarding and skiing are big adaptive sports so that's kind of a market that I wanted to make our equipment used for. Thankfully, our original designs were useful for those sports too and I wanted to learn how to ride. It was a big challenge, but after getting the hang of it, I realized I was pretty good at it. In 2012, some of my friends talked me into competing. And around that time was when they were starting to try and get Paralympic snowboarding in the Olympics. So, being competitive as ever, I was excited. Around 2013-14, the wheels starting turning about me competing in the Olympics.
NK: How did you even manage to build the leg? Do you have an engineering background?
MS: No [laughs]. All of my experiences up until that point revolved around racing, so I was in tune with suspension components and things like that. And as an athlete, body mechanics are really important. And then all my other jobs within metal fabrication helped as well. I also really like building and creating things, so all those different experiences allowed me to develop this thing. I kind of go mad scientist in the shop when I got a new idea in my mind. I'll draw on it for a month and then go to the shop for a week straight, you know late nights, early mornings, the whole nine. I love doing that.
NK: So you went all "mad scientist" on your leg?
MS: Pretty much. I did a couple iterations of the design. I started designing it in spring 2009 and I had the first production in spring 2011. So it took a couple years of prototypes and design work. Now, we've got a few hundred athletes and veterans using our product, as well as the majority of the U.S. Paralympic snowboarding team. It's really rewarding to see these guys test our stuff to the limit in these events. It kind of shows, our products can withstand anything. a huge part of our business is selling to veterans.
NK: Going back to snowboarding, how did someone with amputated legs and no prior snowboarding experience become a Paralympian?
MS: It was definitely a steep learning curve because I'm so new to snowboarding. I'm definitely testing my limits, both physically and mentally. I just loved the feeling of being able to go to the top of the mountain and carving your way down and being dead tired when you got to the bottom. But another part of it is being part of the team. Traveling internationally to our World Cup competitions together, its exciting and quite an adventure. It also gives me anenormous amount of pride because of the amount of work that has gone into it and the struggles of changing to a new sport. If i can get to the Olympics and get the job done while I'm there and be on the podium, that would be the ultimate success in my book. The scope of it is so different than I'm used to, and to represent Team USA, that would be a dream come true.
NK: So, what's next for you?
MS: Honestly, I'm focused on the end of the season. For right now, I'm focused on being the best athlete I can be. For my business, we have a couple directions we can go and I'm excited about that as well.