Marine Vet Aims for 2018 Paralympic Winter Games

By Betta Ferrendelli

Before retired Marine Sergeant Josh Elliott was gravely injured from stepping on a 20-pound explosive device while on routine patrol in Afghanistan in April 2011, he was a master swimmer, ran five days per week, taught martial arts, and had a passion for snowboarding.

Josh wearing Sidekicks

Photograph courtesy of College Park.

Elliott, 34, says he did not lose consciousness following the blast and remembers everything afterward, including being transported by helicopter, and realizing that his body had been riddled with shrapnel and that both of his legs above the knees and three fingers on his left hand were gone. When his wife, Samantha Elliott, heard the news that her husband had been injured, she says she thought one of Josh's Marine friends was playing a joke on her-until the sergeant who was calling made sure that someone was with her before he delivered the extent of the sobering news. "After that first phone call, there was lots of crying and hugging," Samantha, a former Navy Seabee, recalls.

Samantha says she remembers seeing her husband for the first time since his injuries when he was at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC), Bethesda, Maryland, that May. She and Elliott's parents made the trip from Washington state.

"Josh had asked us not to cry," she says. "He was full of tubes."

Not a Moment to Waste

Elliott spent a month at WRNMMC undergoing several major surgeries before being transferred to Naval Medical Center San Diego Balboa (NMCSD Balboa). As he recovered, Elliott, who had been in the Marines since 2002 as a combat engineer, not only felt strong enough to begin trying some of the things he had once loved and had done so well, but he also had another goal in mind: He wanted to stand to greet his Marine unit when it returned stateside that August. It was a lofty goal since he had only a three-month window to make it happen. But he did it. "I was there to greet them, standing on my new prosthetic legs," Elliott says.

A New Sport

It was while in San Diego, where he spent 18 months in outpatient recovery, that Elliott says he became ready to try snowboarding again. His recreational therapist at NMCSD Balboa suggested he try monoskiing instead. Elliott, who had been snowboarding for 15 years, remembers telling her he would, but he was sure he wouldn't like it. "I'm a snowboarder," he told her.

Elliott traveled to Disabled Sports USA's The Hartford Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge, Colorado, in December 2011 to try snowboarding for the first time since his accident. He tried for three hours each morning for four days and came off the mountain in tears each day. "It wasn't working for me," he says.

Josh holding flag

Above: Elliott held up the American flag after winning a silver medal in the giant slalom at the IPC Alpine Skiing Southern Hemisphere Cup. Below: Elliott has been training and preparing for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games by setting small goals along the way, including competing in the IPC Alpine Skiing World Championship in Panorama, Canada. Photographs courtesy of Josh Elliott.

Josh monoskiing on slalom

On the fifth day, Elliott says he decided it was time to try monoskiing and he immediately loved it. "After a few tries, it just clicked," he says. "I quickly found that this was something I knew I could be good at doing."

Within a few months Elliott was skiing independently on the mountain. "What impressed me was that every time I was on the snow, there was someone there to help me-a coach, a guide, there was a service-most of it provided by Disabled Sports," he says. "And I went from just barely learning how to monoski to being introduced to a Paralympic development program out of Aspen, Colorado. They started teaching me how to race, how to edge."

In July 2012, he was invited to Mount Hood, Oregon, to try out for a Paralympic development team and was accepted.

Elliott retired from the Marines in November 2012 so that he could concentrate on making it to the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Korea.

The Long Journey

Elliott says he knows the road to the 2018 Winter Games will be long, and he has been preparing for the journey by setting small goals along the way. "I know none of this is going to happen overnight," he says. He trains hard and competes regularly.

In January 2015, Elliott competed in the X Games in Aspen. The next month, he competed in the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Alpine Skiing World Championship in Panorama, Canada. That August, he traveled to New Zealand to compete in the IPC Alpine Skiing Southern Hemisphere Cup, held during the Wintergames, where he earned a silver medal in the giant slalom. The season before, Elliott won four gold medals and five silver medals in competitions in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand.

Currently, he is in training six days per week in Aspen, where he will be living until April, while Samantha, who is a full-time student studying Christian ministry, is home in San Diego. They were able to spend Christmas together, though, in Yakima, Washington.

More Than Cute Feet

Amidst his training and travels, Elliott began wearing the Soleus foot by College Park Industries, Warren, Michigan, in the beginning of October, replacing the running blades he had been using as his everyday feet.

"Josh saw the foot while visiting College Park and, after learning how it worked, really wanted to try it out," says Aaron Taszreak, director of engineering for College Park. "He immediately loved it and it became his everyday foot, in combination with the Sidekicks. [Running blades] aren't as comfortable for everyday walking and standing."

One of the first things Elliott says he noticed when trying the Soleus foot for the first time was the vertical cushion. "They're very soft to stand on, but give lots of spring and return when walking," he says. The Soleus foot uses multiple springs that work together in a series to get progressively firmer as the wearer increases his or her activity and are built with Intelliweave composites rather than carbon fiber, which makes them flexible but durable, says Taszreak.

Before the Soleus, Elliott was given a pair of College Park Sidekicks as part of a beta test project in August, Taszreak says. "Though Josh is rehabilitated and very active, he still uses stubbie feet for some activities, like when he needs to be closer to the ground when doing yardwork, or a quick transfer around the house," he says. The Sidekicks mimic anatomical ankle rotation, while promoting ground compliance, balance, and mobility.

Josh on stairs

Photograph courtesy of College Park.

Ask Kirk Simendinger, CPO, Bulow Orthotic & Prosthetic Solutions, San Antonio, about the Sidekicks, and he is quick to point out that they are more than "cute feet." "These are viable rehab tools that do a lot to help bilateral, transfemoral amputees," he says. "By using the Sidekicks, [patients] will use the musculature in their legs and hips in a manner very close to how they would use their muscles when they get their articulated knees."

Elliott, however, has tested the limits of the feet by extending their utility beyond use around the house. He took the Sidekicks with him to compete in New Zealand as his only set of legs. "I ran them through four airports, three cities, and two ski resorts, [and through] sand, snow, water, mud, and more." They held up to all conditions with only one minor problem: "The tread wore out," Elliott says.

The manufacturer has since discovered that other active wearers also use the Sidekicks for more than just getting around the house. To address that need, it made adjustments to the tread so the wear resistance is now similar to that of jogging shoes, according to Taszreak.

While Elliott says he's been impressed with the two models of prosthetic feet, more than anything, he'll be the first to tell you that he's just grateful to be able to wear them.

Betta Ferrendelli is a freelance writer based in Denver.