How sports helped Paralympian Curtis Minard regain his identity after arm amputation
“You’ve got to be pretty mentally strong to go through what a lot of us para-athletes have gone through,” snowboarder Curtis Minard says.
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The first time Curtis Minard competed at the Canadian para snowboard championships he crashed in the qualifying round and broke his shoulder. Everyone thought he was done but he had other ideas.
He iced that broken shoulder and raced through three very painful rounds to come away with the gold medal in snowboard cross.
“That was a defining moment for me — you’re either crazy, stupid or that good,” he told himself after that race two years ago.
“You’ve got to be pretty mentally strong to go through what a lot of us para-thletes have gone through.”
In Minard’s case, that includes nearly dying — three times over — from a workplace accident that took his left arm. It’s also what set him on the path to becoming the athlete he is today, competing for Canada in snowboarding at his first Paralympics, which open Friday in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
In 2008, Minard was a hydro technician in Invermere, B.C., working on an overhead power line when another worker made a mistake and he was electrocuted. He nearly died then and twice more afterwards from a blood clot in his lung and a burst artery in his arm. It would take 12 surgeries — the amputation of his left arm just below the elbow and the skin grafts to replace burnt skin — and three years of daily physiotherapy before he recovered physically.
The emotional toll was, in some ways, worse.
He went from being the confident, happy man who got the city’s lights back on in a storm, to the helpless, angry man who couldn’t get dressed on his own.
“You can imagine the hate that I had. The (co-worker) that injured me made an unsafe decision … and I suffered the most,” said Minard, now 38 and living with his wife, Heidi Johnson, and four children aged 13 to 17 in Vernon, B.C.
“I couldn’t play catch with my kids. I couldn’t do anything. I was the guy that turned the lights on in the middle of the night, I was the guy that electrified the grid and I couldn’t even tie my own shoelaces. I went from fully capable and independent to being completely reliant on everyone around me and that really put me into a spiral. I suffered mentally for a long time.”
The physiotherapy helped him regain as much movement as he could in his damaged right arm and adjust to his new prosthetic left one. And it’s sport that helped him regain his identity as a capable person.
He started with hockey and, in 2012, made the Canadian national amputee hockey team. When he stepped on the ice with his teammates in Finland and won a gold medal at the world championships, that’s when he knew he was healed, body and mind.
“That made me realize I overcame this disability, this disability did not own me anymore. I regained my identity through sport,” he said.
Minard still plays hockey recreationally, but it’s snowboarding that has provided the most opportunity to compete internationally and represent Canada. When para-snowboarding made its debut at the 2014 Sochi Games it was for lower-limb amputees only. It was expanded for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games to include a category for upper-limb amputees, opening the door for Minard.
Like most Canadian para-athletes, Minard’s life is a delicate balancing act of work, family and sport. He oversees 100 apprentices at BC Hydro, has a family and sometimes travels for months at a time to training camps and para-snowboarding competitions around the world.
And when he travels there’s something in his bag that gives the airport scanners pause.
“I’m like an octopus, I’ve got eight arms in my bag,” he said, with a grin that says: ask me why.
“It’s type A personality for one,” Minard explains. “But prosthetics are not to the point that a single prosthetic does everything, especially with arms.”
Nature gives most people hands capable of doing everything from picking up a heavy box to threading a needle and washing the dishes, but prosthetics haven’t advanced that far. So Minard has a tough everyday mechanical arm; a myoelectric arm that most closely resembles a normal hand and can be used for fine motor skills; a recreational arm that has sport specific attachments for weightlifting, biking, golf, basketball and others; a hockey arm; and a swim arm that’s waterproof.
The myoelectric is his most advanced and expensive arm at $80,000, but the others aren’t exactly cheap, starting at around $10,000, he said.
“I don’t even know what my prosthetic bill would look like,” said Minard, who is covered by workers compensation because of his accident.
“They keep me in prosthetics and keep me active. Without that support I honestly don’t think that I would have been able to achieve the things that I’ve been able to do. The cost of it is astronomical. Who can afford that stuff?”
That’s one thing that Minard would like Canadians to think about while watching the inspiring display of athleticism and human drive to overcome adversity that is the Paralympic Games.
The tools that let them live normal lives and pursue such an active lifestyle aren’t affordable to most amputees. The War Amps helps children with prosthetics and for adults there’s varying provincial health coverage, which hasn’t kept up to the costs of the devices.
“That’s something we need to work on as a country, being able to get amputees and athletes, from recreational to high level, these prosthetics,” Minard said.
But the man of many arms will compete in snowboard cross on Sunday and banked slalom next Thursday without any prosthetic at all.
“I kind of broke free and took that hand off,” said Minard, who is ranked second overall in the world in the upper limb classification.
“Cosmetically, as a society you always want to fit in and that’s where I was always at, OK, I have to have a hand on because it doesn’t look right not to have a hand on.”
But it’s a heavy load to carry — about twice the weight of his original hand — and without all the muscles to hold it, so he decided it would improve his balance on the snowboard to go without it.
That’s not unusual. Many Paralympians talk about how they started out wanting to “look normal” and came to accept and embrace what makes them special. They’re happy to talk about what makes them and their sport a little different from what people are used to seeing.
“We all have to proud of our roots and who we are as people,” Minard said.