When Vietnam War veteran Jim Martinson lost both of his legs after one of his comrades stepped on a land mine during the war, Martinson was sure he’d never ski again. “I knew it never would happen because I was a double, above-the-knee amputee, and you’ve got to have your knees to ski,” Martinson, 70, explained.
But Martinson did not, in fact, quit; instead, he worked hard to rehabilitate. In the 1980s he formed a company, Magic in Motion, that created equipment for athletes with disabilities. Besides making wheelchairs for everyday life and specific sports, it rolled out the mono-ski, a device that helps disabled skiers like him safely load up on lifts and hit the slopes.
Getting a push from his children
The inspiration behind the mono-ski was pretty simple — Martinson felt a burning desire to ski once again. He was tired of standing around in his prosthetics and watching his three children ski around him. He had learned to ski as a child himself, and he had an athlete’s spirit. (He had won the Boston Marathon’s wheelchair division by this point.)
“All I wanted to do was ski with my kids,” Martinson said. “I was not concerned about double black diamonds [for advanced-level skiers]; I just wanted to ski green and blue runs,” he explained, referring to the less-challenging hills.
The mono-ski worked, and within two years, Martinson had skied green and blue runs, as well as complicated maneuvers on more challenging slopes. He hit a crescendo in 1992, when he won Paralympic gold in the men’s mono-ski downhill division. Today, Martinson still skis the slopes, and recently he took up golf — using a special cart to putt around on greens.
“In life, we have to make a decision: whether we want to keep moving on the way we are or spend the rest of our lives licking our wounds and feeling sorry for ourselves,” Martinson says.
Highlighting the road to inclusion
“Everyone Plays: Sports and Disability,” an exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington through March, tells the story of Martinson and other athletes like him — many who have been wounded in wars but remain fiercely competitive — and of the modernization of adaptive sports that they have witnessed.
It starts at the the beginning — with a display on wheelchair basketball, for example, which the U.S. government started after World War II to rehabilitate injured soldiers.
Ray Werner, paralyzed in the Pacific, became part of a pioneering wheelchair basketball team and found himself testing the limits of his mobility, according to Jane Rogers, the museum’s associate curator.
Adaptive sports in the U.S. morphed into an international movement.
The Paralympics, first held in 1960, and the X Games — which were first held in 1995 and added adaptive sports in 2007 — gave new visibility to athletes with disabilities. And that visibility spurred demand for further technological advances in equipment.
Equipment makers began producing adaptive equipment in the 1970s, while more athletes like Martinson made equipment themselves or modified standard equipment to meet their needs.
Martinson used feedback from customers, his employees and fellow athletes to constantly tweak his company’s wheelchairs and mono-ski. He never patented his inventions, as he wanted others to replicate his creations. “It was because there weren’t a whole lot of people doing anything like that,” he said.
“These people became innovators because of their situation,” said Rogers, the associate curator. “Attitudes have definitely changed … but I think we can always do better.”
This article was written by freelance writer Lenore Adkins.