Take 5: Billy Burkhardt, X Games adaptive SnoCross rider
January 30, 2016
Less than a week ago, Billy Burkhardt got the news he had been waiting for since 2010: He was going to the X Games.
It was nothing short of a dream come true (finally) for the Chicago native and longtime Leadville local. Five years ago, back when X Games first introduced adaptive snocross racing, Burkhardt started training in earnest for his chance at an X Games podium. The sport hardly existed on television before then, but he'd been riding and racing snowmobiles for most of his life and knew he could go sled-to-sled with the best.
"The Colorado outdoors are my health club," Burkhardt said after recording a DNF in the Jan. 28 final in Aspen. "There are so many great things: water skiing, snow skiing, dirt biking, snowmobiling. It's like going to physical rehab every day."
Burkhardt's "rehab through play" program brought him to Colorado 17 years ago, but snow sports have been a part of his life since childhood. It's when he suffered a ski accident at Lake Geneva in Wisconsin, a ski area now known as Grand Geneva, and lost most of the feeling on his right side. The accident forced him to relearn just about everything, from skiing and sledding to simply walking around.
Now, at 47 years old, Burkhardt still gets out on the snow and water. But elite snocross was always his ultimate goal, and when the call came to join the X Games roster he was ready. Well, for the most part: ESPN removed snocross in 2013 when pro Caleb Moore died shortly after a crash on the course, then reintroduced it in 2015 after a year hiatus.
"I had spent all this money and trained and trained and trained, then they took it out," Burkhardt said. "I just didn't think it was going to happen again but then it returned."
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There was hardly time to celebrate the invite. With less than a week to prepare, Burkhardt made his way from Leadville to Aspen for training runs. Like so many riders he entered the race already bruised and battered: In the past two years, he went through MCL surgery and ankle reconstruction, and he was only cleared to ski a few months ago. Then he suffered a crash in practice on Jan. 27 — just a day before the snocross final — and raced all five laps with cracked ribs. When we talked on Jan. 29 he was still battling chest pain.
Burkhardt's first trip to X Games didn't end with a podium — "I would've been the oldest medal winner ever, I think," he laughed — but he hopes it won't be his last. The Summit Daily sports desk caught up with him after the final to talk about training in Leadville, his adaptive Arctic Cat and how he felt right before the starting gun.
Summit Daily News: Let's start at the top: How did you end up qualifying for the adaptive class?
Billy Burkhardt: When I was 12 year old and in seventh grade I was on a triple-A hockey team in Illinois. We went on a ski trip and I ended up hitting a tree. This was back before the helmet days. I had a TBI — a traumatic brain injury — from a hematoma, which required a cranial plate. I basically lost all the motor skills on the right side of my body: I lost my speech, lost everything. They patched me together, and after three months of intensive rehab in Chicago I gained a portion of my movement and dexterity back. I would say that now I still have 80 to 90 percent paralysis on my right side.
People ask, "Why do you still do all that?" And I just tell them it's therapy. You don't really see it when I'm skiing or snowmobiling —it's hard to tell — but I do those sports so I can walk. If I wasn't doing all those hardcore activities, keeping my adrenaline going and keeping my mind going, I don't think I would be here today.
SDN: Right after it happened did you have any hope of skiing again? Or even walking?
BB: Doctors told me when I was released that I wouldn't live to be 30, and here I am now 47. I'm snowmobiling and skiing in the winter, and in the summer I'm on a moto bike training for the snowmobile. My dad just passed away suddenly this summer and that gave me even more drive and motivation to come and do this, be in X Games. A couple people, guys like (adaptive snowmobile and motocross pro) Doug Henry, dropped out and they needed more people in the adaptive class. On Sunday (Jan. 24) I got the paperwork from ESPN and I headed to Aspen right after.
SDN: So everything came together incredibly fast.
BB: Oh yeah. I was probably the most excited racer out of everyone because I've always wanted to do this, race in the adaptive class. They didn't do that until Mike Schultz, a pro racer at the time, lost his leg in a race in Minnesota (in 2008). He actually has a Fox shock for one of his legs now. That was crazy — they almost had to do the amputation on the spot because no choppers or ambulance could make it to the track. When that happened, he had the pull of a pro to bring the adaptive class to the nationals and X Games. I had pushed for it even before then. This is just to show people that on a high level, at the X Games on television, we can get out there and do this with a disability.
SDN: You didn't have much time to train for X Games this year, but year-round riding is a huge part of your life. How do you train for an adaptive race?
BB: The average snocrosser probably started at a very young age these days. I didn't state racing until I got in my 30s. I was riding snowmobiles as a teenager, but most of those pros were born on a snowmobile, you know what I mean?
I also probably work out more than the average snocrosser because I have to. These adaptive guys work out like crazy. I'm speaking for all of them now, but it seems like they are working out harder than anyone else. You have to stay on your game. Leadville was also appealing because you have the altitude. Even when I come to Aspen to race I'm 2,000 feet below Leadville. I'm constantly training at 10,000 to 12,000 feet. That gives me the advantage in my lungs.
SDN: How is an adaptive snowmobile different than a typical race sled?
BB: I have 15 or 16 years of experience tuning her sled (ex-wife and pro snowmobile rider Oksana Burkhardt), so if I wasn't working out and doing rehab through outdoor activities I was wrenching on her sleds. When you're racing at elevation that can be a factor with the sleds. You can tell a lot of these guys are running rich — they don't have the proper carburetion or the proper clutching or anything. But for me, when I race anywhere from Leadville to Grand Mesa to anywhere else in the mountains, I know how it affects the machine.
For my right hand, I can't hang on that well so I run with an extra large left glove and a medium right glove. I also have special grip tape around my right grip and all of my controls are on my left side, so I run with the brake, gas and kill switch all on the left. Back in the day I just had to make do with stock machines. I was a great braker — the brake is on the left — but as far as finessing the throttle, that just didn't happen. It was all or nothing for me as a kid, so I learned right away to go really fast (laughs).
When powder machines started coming out they introduced a lefty throttle and that improved my riding exponentially. I realized I could actually jump and actually go fast under control and actually make corners. These new race sleds you can put the throttle on either side. They didn't design it that way, but they're not like stock machines at a dealership where you can't even split the throttle. When I go out and freeride at Vail Pass or near Climax Mine or Independence Pass I'm usually on a race sled.
SDN: Your start at X Games was at least six years in the making. What was going through your head when you finally got to the start line?
BB: I was a bit nervous, but I wouldn't say it was something I couldn't handle. I'd been in front of cameras before — on the course, in the scene as a flagger — but I'd never actually been riding. I generally only get nervous when I'm not prepared and I had literally less than a week to get everything in line: get my sled, get sponsors, get the sled past "tech." There were tons and tons of people who helped, and there was no way I could've done it without the help of local business in Lake and Summit counties, and friends and family as well. I had people coming out of the woodwork, not because they wanted to be involved or get their mug on TV, but because they knew I had this dream. It was to show other people with disabilities that they can ride a snowmobile on Vail Pass or back in Wisconsin or anywhere. If you want to snowmobile, you can do it. Now, I met all these guys I'm riding against who are missing limbs and that's motivating me even more.
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