August 15, 2008
On the morning of Nov. 3, 2004, Evan Strong opened his eyes and peered up at the steel guard rail hovering above his head.
His gaze then shifted toward his shattered left leg, bones protruding, blood pouring out onto the two-lane highway in Maui.
A rush of emotion overcame Strong as he glanced at his mangled motorcycle sprawled nearly 100 feet from his body, at the shattered glass flickering beneath the Hawaiian sun and the overturned SUV that almost cost him his life.
“My first thought was, I’m never going to skateboard again. My second thought was, my mom is going to kill me,” Strong recalled.
A mere 10 days shy of his 18th birthday, Strong was rounding a curve on his way to work when he noticed the driver of an oncoming vehicle drop her head below the dashboard to light a cigarette.
In a matter of seconds, the vehicle smashed into Strong at a velocity of 55 mph. His head slammed into the windshield, catapulting his body over the car before coming to a halt face up on the side of the road.
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His full-faced helmet ” not required by Hawaiian law ” saved his life and kept him fully conscious until medical aid arrived, but his left arm and leg had taken the brunt of the crash.
“At the time, I thought if I could resume just 1 percent of what I was capable of before the accident, I’d be happy,” Strong said during an interview Friday.
Nearly four years later, Strong has far surpassed that modest goal.
The now-21-year-old has over a dozen medals under his belt in snowboarding, skateboarding and mountain biking. He has more life experiences behind him than most people twice his age, and he’s helping pave the way for disabled athletes who strive to compete in extreme sports.
“The accident was by far the worst thing that ever happened to me, but in the same way, it was by far the best thing,” he said.
His achievements thus far are extraordinary, but that’s not to say the road hasn’t been rocky for the die-hard athlete.
Still a teenager during his year-and-a-half of rehabilitation and physical therapy, Strong admits that his patience ran thin.
After convincing his doctors to amputate his left leg below the knee to maintain that bit of extra support, Strong said with a touch of regret, he may have pushed himself more than he should of.
“I probably walked on a prosthetic too soon and also too much,” he confessed.
Just six months after his first amputation, Strong found himself face up on an operating table again having another inch sliced of his leg due to bruising from excessive movement.
But the second surgery did not detract from Strong’s determination to get back on his skateboard.
“Nothing in life is ever too big or too hard to give up on,” Strong said.
Gliding on a skateboard with only one leg was a challenge to say the least, but the now-Truckee resident said it was all about using the power of his brain rather than the power in his legs.
“Skateboarding is all about feeling the board under your feet,” Strong said. “Now that I can’t feel the ground beneath my left leg, it’s all about mind over matter to maneuver something that isn’t yours and get it work to the result that you want.”
He also found strength through professional athletes like Lance Armstrong and fellow skateboarding amputee Jon Comer, through his family who gave unrelenting support and eventually through a San Diego-based organization called the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
The foundation opened new doors for Strong by putting him in contact with other disabled athletes, and also by helping him discover his strength and passion for mountain biking, he said.
Though grateful for what the Challenged Athletes Foundation did for Strong, the track-and-field-based organization could not fully nurture his yearning for extreme sports, he said.
“The cocktail that gets me going is something with speed, an element of danger and air,” said the thrill-seeker adorned with a map of scars, scrapes and bruises up his arms.
So when he moved to California in 2006 and soon thereafter came in touch with South Lake Tahoe’s Adaptive Action Sports, Strong said he knew he had found his niche.
Through the nonprofit organization, Strong has traveled the East Coast participating in skateboard demos and mountain bike competitions, and most recently did a first-ever disabled skateboarding demonstration for the Extremity Games in Los Angeles.
He’s received a number of gold, silver and bronze medals in both disabled and able-bodied events, he said.
Upon moving to Truckee in 2007, he added snowboarding to his list of extreme sports and after no more than 100 days of riding, he was entering and placing in slope-style, slalom and bordercross events.
But the growing collection of shiny honors is not what Strong considers among his greatest accomplishments, he said.
“Of course the national medals are great and dandy, but it’s the little things that have more of an impact,” he said.
His moments of glory include slipping a pair of jeans over his one-and-a-half legs for the first time, carrying a cup of hot tea across a room without spilling it and, most importantly, when he showed a discouraged teenage amputee from San Diego how to ride a skateboard, he said.
“More than anything, I want to inspire people and give them perspective,” Strong said.
In addition, more than winning competitions, the humble athlete said he wants to help blur the line between disabled and able-bodied athletes by proving that people with disabilities are just as capable as their competitors.
“Sports have blessed my life in so many ways,” he said. “This body is going to be broken when it stops ” I’m going to ride this train until it’s done.”