Paralympic skier Josh Sundquist jokes about not having to match his socks.
"Being an amputee and having a sense of humor is extremely helpful because of the constant awkwardness and weird social situations that you get in," Sundquist said in a telephone interview with the Standard-Examiner.
Humor, along with heartache, is also found in his new memoir, "Just Don't Fall: How I Grew Up, Conquered Illness and Made It Down the Mountain" (Viking, $25.95).
Sundquist, 25, who is also well-known around the country as a motivational speaker, is currently on a national book tour that brings him through Utah on Wednesday when he speaks at the Davis County Library author event in Bountiful.
"With the Winter Olympics coming in February, the Paralympic Winter Games coming in March and the huge number of people in Utah who love skiing and everything associated with it, this is sure to be a very popular author event," said Judy Butler, program coordinator at the Davis County Library.
Those attending can expect to see this energetic young man hop around the stage with the help of his crutches (he doesn't wear his artificial leg anymore because of nerve problems), tell his trademark "amputee jokes" and inspire the audience with his remarkable journey.
Cancer at age 9
Sundquist was a 9-year-old boy growing up in a small town in Virginia in an extremely conservative Christian family. He was home-schooled, went to church regularly, loved to play soccer and dreamed of someday becoming a professional soccer player. But then came a pain in his left leg and an end to those dreams.
"I had cancer all though my femur (thigh bone)," Sundquist said.
Sundquist had been diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare cancer he said affects about 200 people annually, mostly between the ages of 10 and 20 and mostly in long bones. When chemotherapy didn't work, this young boy and his family had to face the harsh reality that his leg would have to be amputated at the hip.
Sundquist vividly remembers the day he went to the hospital with his parents for the amputation. He was in the waiting room with his parents, a nurse and a doctor. They wanted him to get in a wheelchair to take him down the hallway to the operating room. But Sundquist had another idea.
"A wheelchair in some ways represented being an invalid," he said. "I guess in my mind I was hoping that I would be able to live a normal life, and so I suggested the idea of not taking the wheelchair, I just wanted to walk."
Sundquist said there were a few tense moments in the room while the adults discussed his request, but in the end, he got his way.
"And I'll never forget walking down that hallway because I knew that those would be the last steps I would ever take," he said.
A new dream
Sundquist was following a new dream when he stayed in Ogden in 2002 for the Winter Paralympic Games, which follow the Winter Olympic Games.
"I went to watch the opening ceremonies for the Paralympics in the Olympic stadium in downtown Salt Lake," Sundquist said. "I remember standing in the stands with some of my teammates and watching all the teams come in and just being so caught up in the excitement of it, especially when it's in the U.S. and the host country comes out last. Seeing all the U.S. team athletes come out was just so exciting."
Sundquist first discovered skiing after the amputation, while he was still undergoing chemotherapy and physical therapy. The physical therapy center was taking a group of kids to a ski resort in Virginia, and Sundquist went along, despite his weakened condition.
"I went up there and learned how to ski," he said. "I didn't have any hair and I was really tired and didn't have a lot of energy," he said.
But that didn't stop him from coming back three more times that season. Something about skiing had "grabbed" him. He would never be a pro soccer player, but with skiing, a new dream had emerged.
"There's a lot of things I can kinda do. I can kinda play soccer with crutches. I can kinda hop around and play basketball, but not anywhere near a competitive level or even a recreational level with my friends," he said. "But with skiing, I can go as fast as anyone with two legs and I could see that right away as a 10-year-old."
A Paralympics coach who had seen Sundquist ski offered him some early encouragement.
"He told me about the Paralympics and he told me that he thought I had great potential," Sundquist said. "That was a huge motive for me, and it always stuck in my mind until I was 16 and old enough to figure out how to get started racing and training."
Sundquist said he was realistic enough to realize that he was not good enough to win a medal, but he might be good enough to earn a spot on the team for the 2006 Winter Paralympics in Turin, Italy.
"Most of the reason I was still training, especially in that last season or two, was so I could look back in 20 years and not have regrets. I wanted to know that if I didn't make it, at least I gave it my very best shot.
He did make it and he did walk out into that Olympic stadium, proudly wearing the Team USA uniform, an experience he describes simply as "amazing."
"I always imagined walking out into the stadium because that is what I had seen (in Salt Lake) and that's what I knew was kind of a possibility for myself," he said. "The most beautiful walk of my life happened only because of the toughest walk of my life 12 years before in the hospital."
aEUC/WHAT: Davis County Library author program
aEUC/WHO: Paralympic skier Josh Sundquist, author of aEUoeJust DonaEU(tm)t Fall: How I Grew Up, Conquered Illness and Made It Down the Mountain.aEU
aEUC/WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, doors open at 6:30 p.m.
aEUC/WHERE: South Branch of the Davis County Library, 725 S. Main, Bountiful