Jay Gaines, 16, pursues Paralympic dreams at Copper Mountain Ski Resort
Ryan Summerlin November 18, 2013
Jay Gaines has been athletic and active all his life. It’s a trait that runs in the family — both of his parents were young athletes, and Jay spent his childhood wrestling with his siblings, skateboarding with his friends and playing baseball, basketball and football.
What makes Jay’s athletic feats even more impressive is the unique set of challenges he’s had to overcome in order to achieve them.
Jay was born without the lower half of his right arm, and without all the necessary anklebones in his right leg. This required surgery, which left Jay an amputee at just 9 months. His left hand also needed reconstructive surgery, resulting in the removal of his pinkie finger.
Yet despite these early setbacks, Jay thrived. Even early on in his post-surgery physical therapy, young Jay crawled, hopped and rolled all over the house. When his mother, Michelle Gaines, considered getting him kneepads to protect him during his crawling stage, the prosthetist asked if she had done so for her other children, and urged her to treat her son just the same. From then on, Michelle has done just that.
“I try to encourage him as much as possible,” she said. And it shows, as Jay continually strives to test his bodily limits of speed, endurance and athleticism.
“The kid has no fear.”
Don’t say you can’t
At age 6, Jay was on a skateboard, exploring the skate park behind his house with his friends. At seven, he was on the basketball team, dashing around the court and blocking shots with his left arm. Third grade saw him part of the football team.
“He’d be running down the football field and his (prosthetic) leg would fall off, and he’d just keep running,” Michelle recalled with a laugh. Jay would continue down the field, returning for his prosthesis only when the play was over. “He’s always had that athletic ability.”
In seventh grade, however, Jay’s school refused to allow him on the football team. Still determined, he transferred to a different school and, as an eighth-grader, showed up at tryouts among a large group of other hopefuls. The coach announced that the students who remained throughout the following rounds of difficult drills would make the team.
“Jay was one of the last three standing,” Michelle said, still proud, remembering how afterward her son had walked into the locker room, “grinning ear to ear.”
At the end of the year, Jay’s new team took on the team that had refused him for the championship game, and won.
“I’ve always told all my kids, drop the ‘t,’” Michelle said. “Don’t say you can’t. Drop the ‘t’ and you can.”
Jay’s three other siblings also helped push him to reach his goals.
“I was super good at wrestling, from wrestling with my brothers and sisters all the time,” he joked.
“I’d always try to get Jay outside,” said his older sister, Brooklynn. “(I’d) get him off the video games, (to) go outside and play basketball. He was already really good at it. He was always the more athletic one out of anybody.”
Sometimes, she added, she forgets that he only has one arm.
A taste for snow
Jay was 13 when he went snowboarding for the first time. Three years ago, he and a group of friends traveled to Paoli Peaks, an Indiana ski resort. Since he was already comfortable on a skateboard, Jay decided that snowboarding was his best option. Though it was harder at first than he’d expected, Jay wasn’t ready to give up. While researching adaptive motocross — another passion of his — he came across Adaptive Action Sports (AAS).
Founded in 2005 by Daniel Gale and professional adaptive snowboarder Amy Purdy, AAS seeks to provide veterans, youth and young adults living with disabilities the opportunity to experience and train in action sports such as skateboarding, snowboarding, wakeboarding and motocross.
Although Jay was initially interested mainly in motocross, it didn’t take long to convince him to get involved with the snowboarding program.
“We were like, let’s get him on a snowboard!” said Gale.
AAS offered 14-year-old Jay a chance to travel to Crested Butte, Colo., to compete in a slalom and giant slalom snowboarding competition against other amputees. Jay jumped at the chance.
“It was definitely an experience to remember, because I’d never really ever in my life been around other amputees,” Jay said. “I wasn’t really used to seeing (other) people also take their legs off.”
Jay learned a lot on that trip, not only about adaptive snowboarding, but simply from spending time with people with similar disabilities and similar drives to overcome their physical challenges. He also placed third, making it onto the podium in his first ever snowboarding competition.
As Jay’s passion for snowboarding grew, he continued to train with Gale and Purdy at AAS. The next season, he entered more competitions, including the slalom event at Breckenridge Ski Resort during the Hartford Ski Spectacular, an annual event put on by Disabled Sports USA and the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.
“You just feel free while you’re on the mountain,” Jay said of why he’s fallen in love with snowboarding. “There’s no other feeling when you’re out there. (It’s) just kind of like an escape from everything else.”
With the help of AAS, Jay has a new goal to shoot for — competing in the Paralympics in 2018.
To do that, Jay is continuing to train with AAS at Copper Mountain, and his mom, older sister and younger brother have packed up their lives in Kentucky and moved with him to Summit County to support his burgeoning snowboarding career.
“I plan on, when I’m older, being one of the best adaptive riders out there,” Jay said. “I’ve got a lot of work to go, but that’s what my big goal is — pick up a lot of sponsors and make it a career.”
Gale, who has been training with Jay this season, said he sees potential.
“Jay has been great on the slopes to work with. I think his past experience with team sports gives him insight to being coachable,” Gale said. “I know he’s extremely dedicated to the sport and that’s always a bonus when you’ve got an athlete that loves it as much as we (the trainers) do,” he added with a laugh.
All of Jay’s attention now is focused on his training, and upcoming competitions in December. He’s ready to push for his goal and encourages others to follow suit.
“Don’t let your disability get in your way,” he offered as advice to others. “No matter what, push towards (your goal). Just because you have a disability, (it) just means you have to work harder at what you want to do.”