A year ago at this time, Whistler’s Tyler Mosher would have been considered one of the favourites heading into the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi in the recently sanctioned sport of para-snowboarding. He was winning and placing in races, and had successfully helped to lobby for the use of the “slingshot” discipline that favoured his riding style — basically a time trial on a snowboardcross course — as the default discipline for his sport at the international level.
And now? Mosher is coming into this season as an underdog. Last season, less than a year since the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and Olympic organizers confirmed para-snowboarding would be in the 2014 Paralympics, Mosher endured setback after setback.
The first was a decision by the IPC to classify all athletes with lower body disabilities equally — something other timed Paralympic sports don’t do in order to make allowances for different types of disabilities. Mosher, an incomplete paraplegic who is 40 per cent paralyzed below the waist, found himself to instantly at a disadvantage riding against snowboarders that are below-the-knee amputees on one leg and have the benefit of state-of-the-art prosthetics.
So Mosher redoubled his efforts, pushing his limits on courses that were getting a little bigger and burlier to ratchet up the “wow” factor.
While Mosher said he understands that those courses help build excitement for the sport — “it’s about creating an exciting show,” he said — but they are also a challenge for his specific disability. He can’t quickly readjust his stance on landing, and as a result has to make every jump perfectly.
That led to the second major setback — a string of injuries that kept him off the snow for most of last season. In January he broke his left shoulder, crashing so hard that the muscle pulled away a piece of bone. In March, at the last World Cup races in Big White, Mosher crashed again, fracturing a vertebrae before crawling across the finish line. The recovery window for that injury was six months.
Despite the setbacks, Mosher remains determined to contend for gold, or at least a podium for Canada. He’s invested heavily in this season by hiring private coaches, purchasing new equipment and travelling to Europe to train for the Games.
“I have to make up three per cent (time differential) to be in the game against the other guys, who are all great athletes. And most of them are young — I’m 41 now,” he said.
“I think I can comfortably come fourth or fifth by playing it safe in every World Cup, but to get on the podium I have to put everything on the line. Either it’s going to work or I’m going to wipe out.”
Mosher has hired Whistler-based Reign SBX to help him step up his game, which includes access to coaches like David Hugill, John Shelly and Olympic snowboardcross racer Drew Neilson. On Saturday (Oct. 19) they flew to Hintertux Glacier in Austria to assess Mosher’s skills, dial in his equipment and figure out a strategy to help Mosher make up those percentage points.
“They’re tailoring a program specifically to my needs, versus the needs of a team, and I’ve identified that the technical coaching aspect is what I need the most right now to get me on the podium,” explained Mosher. “We’re especially lucky to have such great professionals donate so much of their time and work for nominal fees to support the national team athletes. And we’re getting great support from everybody, from local and team doctors and physiotherapists, to strength trainers and wax techs. ”
After Hintertux, Mosher and coaches will head to Big White, the home base for the para-snowboard team, to join up with other members of the team and continue training. They’ll shift between the interior and Whistler until the World Cup at Big White on Jan. 25 and 26.
From there, they’ll fly to Maribor, Slovenia for another World Cup race, then onto the last World Cup in La Molina, Spain, before the Paralympic Games in Sochi. Mosher is currently planning to stay in Europe between the races in Spain and Russia to avoid another few rounds of jetlag, and will be away for close to eight weeks.
It’s expensive to go for gold, and currently Mosher is paying for most of the costs himself — about $50,000 of his own money for last season and this season, although he does get some assistance here and there from Canada Snowboard and other sources. He’s open to sponsorships and recently took steps to get a sponsor package out there, but if given the choice he’d rather earn his money through speaking engagements.
Whatever happens this season, Mosher already feels like he’s achieved something after a decade of lobbying for the sport.
“In a way I feel like I’ve already won my gold medal,” he said. “From the beginning my goal was just to get snowboarding into the Paralympics. Once part of the program, I knew governments around the world would fund and support the growth of snowboarding for people living with a disability. Previously, children were told they had to ski. Now they can snowboard with their friends if they choose.
“For the first few years it was just a handful of athletes pushing for it. They (the IPC) wanted us to build from the bottom and get the numbers first, but I knew that if the sport was in the Games then the athletes would follow. There were a lot of adaptive snowboarders out there, they just didn’t have anywhere to compete. Then Canada Snowboard took it on, and they did a great job getting it the rest of the way into the Paralympics.”
This won’t be Mosher’s first trip to the Paralympics. In 2010, he competed for Canada in the sport of cross-country skiing, dedicating close to seven years of his life to making the team. He finished 21st and 23rd in the individual events, and was part of a seventh-place relay team.
Ironically, he would have an easier time now if he stuck with cross-country. The IPC changed the classification system for the sport, and if it was applied retroactively to 2010 then Mosher would have placed in the top 10.
You can follow Tyler Mosher on Facebook, or his website, www.tylermosher.com.