“Do I feel more protective of my body after losing my leg? If anything I’m less protective”
Blesma introduced Owen Pick to wakeboarding and gave him the chance to try snowboarding. Now the 23 year old competes against able-bodied boarders and has his sights set on the Winter Paralympics
Thundering down black ski slopes at ridiculous speeds, chucking yourself over gigantic jumps and, most importantly, making sure you pull off landings smooth enough to defy the laws of physics automatically comes with a major health warning. So attempting all that as an amputee might be seen (by some) as deeply unwise. But Owen Pick, a 23-year-old Blesma Member from Cambridgeshire who has one leg, chuckles in the face of such dangers. “Do I feel more protective of my body after losing my right leg?” he ponders. “Not at all. If anything I feel less protective! The way I see it, I have one less ankle to break! You need to have a bit of a screw loose to do this kind of sport anyway – the jumps and the speed. You have to be a bit batty.”
Owen, who lost a limb to an IED in Afghanistan in 2010, has never let his injury get in the way of his exhilaration. He used wakeboarding as part of his rehab, becoming one of the best exponents of the sport in the UK along the way, before turning his attentions to the slopes. He has since qualified as a snowboard instructor and now he’s got his sights firmly set on two things: the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympic Winter Games, and inspiring more amputees to strap on their bindings and make their mark on a mountain or two.
“No matter where in the world I go, people are shocked that I’m an amputee,” Owen says. “It happened again today. My mate was asking me how my leg was getting on, and a girl in the queue for the ski-lift turned to me and couldn’t believe I had one leg. But I snowboard just the same way as anyone else does.”
We sit down with Owen to discuss his amazing journey – and how he plans to win Paralympic gold in four years’ time.
Tell us a bit about your time in the Army and how you got injured…
I joined 1st Battalion The Royal Anglians straight from school. I was three months into my first tour of Afghanistan when I got blown up. That was in January 2010. We’d been under fire all day and got the order to assault a compound. I stood on an IED. I didn’t know anything about it, all I remember is a white flash, but I was apparently blown about 10 feet in the air. I woke up back in Selly Oak with my parents by my bedside.
The operations and rehab couldn’t quite save your leg though…
That’s right. I battled for 18 months to keep my leg, but in the end nothing was working. The surgeons gave me the choice: take it off or keep having numerous operations in the hope that it might get better. In August 2011 I eventually decided to amputate my leg below the knee. I felt relieved once I’d made the decision, and since then I’ve not looked back.
How much has it affected you mentally?
I have the odd bad day, where I think; ‘For God’s sake, I wish I had my leg back!’, but I generally just think there is nothing I can do about it, so I get on with things. I look at what I’ve managed to do since my leg came off, and think; ‘I’m doing alright’.
Which brings us to your wakeboarding and snowboarding achievements. How did you get started?
I enjoyed sports at school, but it was always just Army, Army, Army for me, so I didn’t really participate at a serious level. After the injury I got the chance to try all sorts of crazy adventure and extreme sports through the likes of Blesma and Battle Back. On one trip in 2012 we went to a
lake to try sit-down waterskiing and while I was there I saw a guy wakeboarding. I didn’t even know what it was. I asked him if he thought I could do it, and he said he had no idea because he’d never seen an amputee try it! So I did a little research, and found one other amputee who’d done it. I realised it could be done, and that’s when the learning process really began.
And you’ve not looked back…
I was hooked! I was enrolled on a course in Southampton at the time but I ended up driving back to the lake every night to wakeboard. I asked the guy who was running the wakeboarding if he needed
any help, and I moved to the lake for the summer, worked there, and really got to grips with it. Then, the next season, I was at my local wakeboarding park every day, and they offered me a job as an instructor. I’ve also competed widely, and made the podium at competitions in the UK and overseas. I’m the only guy in Europe with an amputation competing against able-bodied wakeboarders.
What were the main physical challenges you had to overcome?
The biggest challenge is waterproofing. I tape up the valve well, and make sure I have a good seal on the leg. I use my normal prosthetic, and I learned like a regular wakeboarder.
And from there you got involved in snowboarding…
I’d been wakeboarding all summer and it was getting to the point where I was about to be discharged from the Army. I was asked what I wanted to do for my resettlement and I said I’d like to go on a snowboarding instructor course. I’d never snowboarded before but I had it in my head that I wanted to become a snowboarding instructor, and I did.
Which is where Blesma came in to help you once again…
Yes, I went to Colorado on a Blesma skiing trip, which was great. They were happy for me to snowboard instead of ski and I loved it. I went to Canada after that for three months to complete my instructor’s course. The following winter I was all over the place snowboarding, and at the end of March 2014 I entered the French National Adaptive Snowboardercross Championships, which also doubled up as my trials for the Great Britain Paralympic team. My coach just wanted me to get down the course without falling and clock a better time on each consecutive run. I outdid that by a mile – I got the silver medal with only four days’ training, against guys who had been competing for two years or more.
So you realised you had a talent?
That was my first competition, so it might have been Beginners’ Luck! I need to enter more competitions to work out what level I’m able to compete at. With wakeboarding, it feels great when I win competitions against able-bodied guys. I’m not beating the pros yet, but I’m doing OK. Realising
I could enter competitions has made both sports more enjoyable, and I now really want to go to the Paralympics, but that was never really the driving force in the beginning – it was about having fun!
Can you explain a bit about how Adaptive Snowboardercross works?
I describe it as being like a motocross track on snow. It’s a downhill race against the clock – and I absolutely love the adrenaline of racing. The track is made up of banked turns, jumps, whoops, spines and other obstacles. The aim is to keep the board on the ground as much as possible so that you can go as fast as possible. It’s about absorbing all the bumps, so you need to have power in your legs and get your balance and edges just right.
Have you had to adapt your snowboard?
I put a hard plastic tube under my heel in the snowboard binding to lean my knee forward slightly and give me the correct position. Apart from that there’s nothing different, it’s all regular gear and technique.
Do you do any tricks?
I do – it kind of comes naturally from the wakeboarding. The Army’s freestyle snowboarding team are here [in Austria where Owen is training] at the moment, and I’m going to enter a freestyle competition with them. To be honest, I enjoy that side of the sport as much as the racing.
What does your journey to the Paralympics look like?
My teammate, Ben Moore, and I are the only two British Adaptive Snowboardercross competitors, so we’re working to improve all the time. We also need lots of people to donate money to help us get where we want to be. I’m doing as much social media awareness as possible to raise money. It’s tricky because we are pioneering this – nobody has done it before, so we haven’t got anyone who can tell us what to do. It’s difficult, but one way or another we’ll get to the 2018 Paralympics, I’m sure of that.
How and where are you training?
I’m in Austria until December and then I’ll head over to Utah for the winter. At the moment I’m concentrating on getting the strength in my legs. The hard training will really start when we get
to Utah, where we’ll have professional coaches and physios. That’s when the competitions start too, so we’ll be entering a lot of tournaments. We’ll do that for the next three seasons, then it’s the Paralympics.
How much have Blesma helped?
I’d never heard of them before my injury, and like many people I thought they were a charity for old people at first. But then they sent me to Colorado where I first tried snowboarding – and that’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing. God knows what I’d be doing if it hadn’t been for Blesma!
What would you say to any young amputees keen on getting involved in this, or other, extreme sports?
I’d be happy to help them however I can. One of my biggest aims is to get other guys out on the mountain. I’d love to coach more and my message would be: some bad stuff has happened to you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy yourself.