Take 5: An interview with Paralympic hopeful James Sides
Some athletes find their sport when they’re still in diapers. Others find it when they least expect it.
In 2012, retired Marine Staff Sgt. James Sides was on a routine call to disarm an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. As the explosive ordinance disposal technician, it was his job to handle and disarm explosives, usually with the help of a robot.
But bots aren’t foolproof, and so Sides had to manually disarm the IED. It exploded at close range, mangling his right hand and most of the forearm while taking the sight in his left eye. The Texas native and veteran Marine opted to amputate his entire lower arm, even though he knew it meant the end of a 10-year military career.
It could have been a devastating blow for Sides, an active, outdoorsy type who grew up surfing and skateboarding. He’d only been snowboarding a handful of times before he took a chance on a ski program through Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The program, dubbed Ski Spectacular, pairs injured military with coaches for on-snow race training.
After one trip, Sides was hooked. In just three years, he’s gone from a casual snowboarder to a Paralympic boardercross racer in the making. He and his wife, Amy, moved from Santa Monica, California to Summit County this July so that Sides could be closer to the Copper Mountain home base of Adaptive Action Sports, a long-running local organization for Paralympic hopefuls.
Shortly after returning from a U.S. Snowboarding camp in Austria, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Sides to hear about his newfound love for racing, the Paralympic training regimen and how he compensates for blindness on the course.
Summit Daily News: You recently returned from early-season training with in Austria. How was your first experience on European snow?
James Sides: That was my first time there, but they head out there every year, two weeks before the season, and I was lucky enough to head out there and train with them this time. It has never really happened before, where they invited two developmental guys. It was very cool to get out there and train.
SDN: What was the schedule like in Austria?
JS: It was like Groundhog Day, same thing over and over. Every day from 9 a.m. to noon or 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. we were out there, just working on basics — your body position, how your hands fall, basic carving, running gates. It’s the same thing, but all of us improved so much, even the experienced riders. You get in a muscle memory routine and it just starts to come back, and then that’s when you get better. It’s a great way to get a base line for the rest of the season.
SDN: At this point in the season what does your training regimen look like?
JS: Well, A-Basin and Loveland have opened, but I haven’t been yet. A few other guys headed out there for a run or two the other day and they said it wasn’t the best for training. It was pretty sketchy out there, the White Ribbon of Death. Right now we’re just preparing the core and the legs for the season, working in the gym and all of that. It’s just waiting for the snow to get good.
SDN: You were injured Afghanistan about three years ago. What happened there?
JS: I was an EOD tech, an explosive ordinance disposal tech, on a routine call. By the time I got hurt in 2012, they were already downsizing troops in Afghanistan. They were pulling Marines out, the Afghan army had control, but we were helping them out with things. They found an IED on the road, I sent my robot down, it pulled up the ignition device and the battery pack, but we couldn’t dig it out from there. I had to go down and manually dig it out, but it was booby-trapped and went off when I was handling it.
SDN: Was your right arm the only injury?
JS: First they amputated my hand. I opted to get my forearm amputated later, and that was because it makes for easier use. It’s better for activities. I have a mountain bike attachment, a surfing attachment, an attachment for the gym — all of that. I also went blind in my left eye at the same time. The air, the pressure when it (the IED) went off, it disconnected my retina and my cornea, like almost half of it.
SDN: How does blindness affect your performance in a race, or even just riding around the hill?
JS: Well, I’m lucky it wasn’t my lead eye. I definitely don’t like riding in flat light these days because I have no depth perception, but it’s just something I have to deal with. I think I check uphill more than anyone else out there. I’m constantly looking. Right now I’m only racing two at a time, but when I do the USASA races there are four racers out there. You definitely have your head on a swivel.
SDN: Talk about your ties to Adaptive Action Sports. How did everything come together with them?
JS: When I was at Walter Reed they do a few ski trips, and I signed up with Ski Spectacular, one of their trips. I’d only been snowboarding a few times before then, but when I went I guess I improved enough to be noticed by the coaches, by Dan Gale and Chris Koeppe. After that they invited me to one of their camps.
SDN: What drew you to the Adaptive Action Sports race camps? You’d only been on a board a few times before then.
JS: It was just the adrenaline, the racing side of it. It’s not just you on the hill — it’s you trying to beat someone else. Growing up, I watched action sports a lot and just loved watching that gnarly stuff. It was just so fun. We stick with two disciplines, boardercross and banked slalom. I really do prefer the boardercross, for sure. It’s a bit more fun. Banked slalom is just really technical. With boardercross, you’re not just banging gates. There’s a rhyme and a reason for the line you’re picking, how you’re going down the course. I’m still getting the hang of riding up on walls though.
SDN: What will it take now to make the Paralympic team?
JS: For me, it’s just mileage I’ve been invited to camps two years in a row now and I think that says something about my performance. Now, it’s just a matter of getting points and getting on the podium. I’ve just wanted to do it because it’s the highest level, and then for me, it’s the best way to represent my country again, represent America.
SDN: Do you and other adaptive athletes get support through the military?
JS: We get a bit. The VA has a connection with the IPC (International Paralympic Committee), the Paralympic team, and we get a monthly stipend to help with travel and entry fees. Then through Adaptive Action Sports they have fundraisers to support me and three others, so four of us total. It helps us with travel and everything else. We definitely have a good amount of support income to help us reach that goal of getting on the team.
SDN: When you make the team, what happens then? What’s the ultimate end goal?
JS: Just keep up the standard. At Sochi, those guys swept the podium — one, two and three were Americans. This is only my third year of snowboarding, and a lot of these guys have 10 or 12 years. But it’s coming together quick. Every month I’m on snow I progress.
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