Innovation, invention necessities of job for U.S. Disabled Ski Team equipment manager
Most able-bodied competitive skiers never give a second thought as to the availability of ski equipment and servicing. If they need new gear, ski maintenance or a wax job, they just head for the nearest ski shop.But where do competitive disabled skiers turn to for the latest equipment or for servicing on their current ski gear – one doesn’t easily find a mono-ski on the rack at the local ski store or a ski technician who knows how to adjust the bindings on a sit-ski?The answer, somewhat surprisingly, is a nondescript garage in Tahoe Donner. The garage serves as the workshop of Michael Byxbe, 46, the equipment manager for the U.S. Disabled Cross-Country Ski Team.”What I do is make prototype outdoor adaptive equipment for disabled athletes,” said Byxbe. “Truckee is like a Mecca for competitive disabled skiers. There are four or five world-class athletes in this area alone. The problem is, ‘you gotta build your own’ (equipment) in this sport.”For those skiers who “can’t build their own,” however, Byxbe is a godsend, spending hundreds of hours each year in his workshop building, creating and servicing equipment as well as trying to perfect new technologies to be implemented by the U.S. Disabled Ski Team.”Byxbe’s at the forefront of this type of equipment,” said Mark Wellman, who earlier this month became the first person to ever sit-ski the Great Race. “He’s definitely one of the most knowledgeable people in the nation when it comes to disabled ski equipment.””I try to move forward with technology,” said Byxbe, who is a concrete contractor by trade. “I’m not afraid to try something new and then say ‘that worked good’ or ‘throw that out.'”Byxbe’s association with disabled ski equipment resulted from a childhood accident, which necessitates his own use of a modified Canadian crutch (outriggers) while alpine skiing.”I broke my hip falling off a rope swing when I was nine years old, and my hip deteriorated from lack of vasculation (blood flow),” Byxbe said. “It hurt when I tried to ski on two legs and forced me to quit. But then in 1981 a friend told me about the disabled ski program in Winter Park, Colo. I went up there and they said ‘if it hurts too much to ski on two legs, why not try skiing on one leg?'”The outriggers worked. Finally pain-free while skiing, Byxbe became hooked on the sport and began volunteering at the Winter Park program, teaching other disabled people how to ski using the specialized equipment. He also began to coach competitive disabled skiers.”Because of those athletes, I was forced to adapt and tinker with equipment as the equipment kept evolving,” Byxbe said.Between 1986-1990, Byxbe had access to the most advanced disabled equipment available, as he was part of a traveling clinic which taught different aspects of the sport to disabled-skiing instructors nationwide.”During that time, I was able to practice with and fine tune the latest alpine gear,” Byxbe said.In 1989, Byxbe moved to Truckee and began working at the Tahoe Adaptive Ski School. He also started coaching several athletes. One of the athletes he began coaching was Candace Cable, who would go on to win three alpine medals at the 1992 Winter Paralympics in Tignes, France.When Cable chose to change her focus from alpine to cross-country skiing during the 1993 skiing season, Byxbe was suddenly forced to become a cross-country sit-ski expert.”In 1993, there was nothing going on for disabled cross-country skiers and the designs were not very good,” Byxbe said. “I’ve made 12 different sit-skis since then, always playing with new ideas. I’ve built them out of need; they’re customized for racing and the technology has continued to evolve.”Byxbe’s latest technology for cross-country equipment involves the “articulation” of the skis. Cable used the articulation technology last winter to capture the U.S.A.’s first-ever medals in women’s sit-skiing at the Disabled World Championships in Sunne, Sweden.”Articulation allows both skis to edge the snow, just as if the sit skiers were on their feet,” said Byxbe, explaining how articulation lets the skis “tilt” as the rider adjusts his or herweight. “No one else in the world had this technology at the World Championships last year; in fact, we were ready to be protested by the other teams.”Instead of being protested, however, other teams wanted to improve their own equipment and borrow the technology. Byxbe said he hopes to continue to improve the technology of the U.S. Ski Team’s equipment through the Winter Paralympic Games in Nagano, Japan in 1998.The Paralympic Games will take place directly following the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano.”We’re gearing the technology to have our best races in 1998,” Byxbe said. “Our ‘crescendo’ will hopefully be a Paralympic medal in Nagano.”Byxbe said that it takes about 75-100 hours of labor to build a customized racing sit-ski, which is comprised of a fabricated aluminum frame and wheelchair upholstery in addition to a pair of racing skis. If not for the ski team’s sponsors, the parts for a new sit ski would run to $2,000.”Candace’s sponsors make it possible for her to have a top sit-ski,” Byxbe said. “She receives gear from Atomic, Rottefella, Smith Sunglasses and Danskin. Locally, Paco’s and Mountain Hardware provide her with equipment and the Tahoe Donner Cross-Country Ski Area allows her to train and experiment with new equipment. She also receives assistance from S & R Snow Removal and local welders who help build her sit skis.”Byxbe doesn’t consider himself to have extraordinary mechanical skills; rather, his talent lies in his ability to recognize a disabled athlete’s equipment deficiency and try to improve upon it.”I’m a facilitator of the disabled athletes’ needs,” Byxbe said. “If they can describe how they would like their equipment to perform, I can usually understand what they want and improve the equipment’s performance.”Byxbe realizes he will never become rich by improving sit ski technology. Instead, he receives his satisfaction from seeing disabled athletes perform up to their potential unencumbered by their equipment.”I like to help disabled athletes and improve their quality of life – that’s where I’m coming from,” Byxbe said. “I will probably never make a dime building this equipment, but I don’t really care.”For information on disabled skiing equipment, call Byxbe at 587-2283.
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The Barracuda Championship is set to tee off next week, bringing PGA golfers to Tahoe Mountain Club’s Old Greenwood course for the second year in a row.