It was a perfect mountain day in British Columbia, Canada. The sun was shining. The temperature was right around the freezing mark, making conditions ideal. It was the type of spring day skiers wait for all year.
Josh Dueck arrived for another day of work as a freestyle ski instructor at Silver Star Mountain Resort. Noticing some of his students already speeding downhill and flying off a ramp, Dueck decided to quickly join the activities.
“At 23, I wasn’t chock full of wisdom and maturity, and I often said to my kids, ‘Do as I say, not what I do,’” Dueck said. “And that day I was a hypocrite.”
Bypassing any proper warmup and having completed just one speed check, Dueck raced down the mountain. He was going too fast, and he knew it. There was a moment where he could have pulled out of the run and diverted from the jump. Instead, Dueck sped on.
“Part of me wanted to really prove my worth and my ability to the kids I was coaching,” he said. “As soon as I was in the air I knew it was going to be a disaster.”
Dueck over-rotated his front flip and overshot the landing hill, slamming chest-first into the ground following what was the equivalent of a 100-foot drop. After regaining consciousness, Dueck felt embarrassed. In fact, it was the only thing he could feel. Dueck was paralyzed from the waist down.
“I started to look around and make eye contact with the kids who had witnessed the fall and I saw in their expression how serious the result was,” he said. “For me that’s the most devastating part of the story — it was an immediate realization of how our actions affect other people. Physically I took a hit, but everybody was traumatized in some way, shape or form. In one sense it was a really good awakening for me knowing what we do can affect other people, but in the same way it’s haunted me the past 12-plus years knowing what that poor choice led to.”
While not knowing the severity of the injury and fearing the worst as he was transported by ambulance to Vancouver General Hospital, Dueck was graced by the mantra “Everything happens for a reason.” He has maintained such a positive outlook since the life-altering event on March 8, 2004.
Dueck lay in his hospital bed following a series of tests and examinations anxiously awaiting the official diagnosis. The doctor came into the room and told him the bad news — Dueck had dislocated his back and severed his spinal cord. He would never walk again.
“He looked at me and says, ‘Josh, you are going to rock the world from the wheelchair. Don’t think of yourself as handicapped. Before you know it, we’re going to have you back in the mountains on a sit-ski with all your friends,’” Dueck said. “In one moment he shifted what could have been the darkest moment in my life to giving me hope. It gave me something to look forward to.”
Being with his friends was the main reason Dueck took up skiing in the first place. In the rural mountain town of Kimberley, BC, kids grew up playing hockey or skiing. Skiing gave the teenagers an outlet to express themselves and Dueck loved that. He yearned for the social aspect of the sport, but it provided much more. He viewed the powder-white mountains as a blank canvas and his skies were his paintbrush.
Dueck learned to ski when he was 13 and joined a local club two years later. Dueck aspired to be an Olympian, but had to give up on his dream due to financial constraints. He then transitioned into coaching.
While the accident may have taken away so much from Dueck, it brought something, specifically someone, back into his life. Lacey was a girl he had pined over. He asked her out time after time yet she continually and politely declined. After she heard of Dueck’s accident, Lacey, 19, quit her job and rushed to his side. A week later, Dueck asked her out again. This time she said yes. Josh and Lacey eventually got married and now have two children.
Dueck’s dreams of being an Olympian were officially ruined as a result of the accident. Or so he thought. Being surrounded by positive and loving influences helped motivate Dueck even more. Following nine months of rehabilitation, he was poised to return to the mountains.
Dueck propped up his wheelchair outside of the car and set himself in it, ready to get back on the proverbial horse for the first time since his accident. But he couldn’t move. His heart started to race. Was it an omen? Should he not be back on the mountains? Was it too soon? The snow was too much for him to propel the chair forward alone, so a friend helped guide him toward the mountain to get set up. It was merely a minor obstacle he had to overcome as he adjusted to this different life.
“Emotionally I was somewhat detached from the anticipation,” he said. “I wasn’t excited or scared. I was stoic. I wore the same gear — the bindings, goggles, skis and so on — from day I broke my back. It was symbolic.”
Like a child learning to ride a bicycle being supervised with a watchful eye, Dueck learned how to sit-ski on the beginner hill. Despite being closer to the ground, he still feared falling. He would fall. Then he was helped back up. He would fall again and get back up once more. By the third day on the hill, it all came back to him.
“Everything I knew about skiing before — the feelings, the ability to anticipate terrain, everything — it all came back to me in a turn,” he said.
In 2006, Dueck started his first year ski racing. The following year he had reached the professional level and his childhood dream of being an Olympian was back in his mind. The 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics were coming to his backyard in Vancouver. He wanted nothing else.
Dueck represented Canada at the 2010 Paralympic Games, winning a silver medal in the slalom. He won two medals — gold in super combined and silver in downhill — at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi. He was Canada’s flag bearer for the closing ceremony. Dueck also won gold at the 2011 Winter X Games and bronze at the 2012 Winter X Games Aspen.
He rose to national prominence and fame after becoming the first person to complete a backflip via sit-ski in February 2012. Dueck appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show shortly thereafter to talk about his journey and accomplishment.
“How I responded to the accident and moving forward in life really inspired all the people in the ski community around me so as it lifted them, they continued to lift me,” Dueck said. “That momentum carried me forward through the difficult times, helped me get back to the mountains skiing, and to live that dream I had as a young kid.
“I still look back and tell stories about my journey and it’s hard to believe I was the character of that story in terms of how well it went and how much I enjoyed it.”