Pillars speaker Sundquist talks success, challenges as amputee, athlete, author

Josh Sundquist

At age 9, Josh Sundquist was diagnosed with cancer, went through a year of chemotherapy and had his left leg amputated at the hip — this may have ruined his plans to become a professional soccer player, but Sundquist was able to adjust. He ski races with the U.S. Paralympic team and has become a YouTube star with his sense of humor and positive attitude. He’ll be speaking in Juneau May 1 as part of the Pillars of America series, organized by Glacier Valley Rotary club.

“Probably the greatest challenge I faced learning to live with one leg was having to reconfigure my expectations about what I was able to do, most specifically for me at that age, I was no longer really able to play soccer,” Sundquist said.

He wasn’t about to let his athletic prowess go to waste just because he only had one leg, he started learning to ski while still in treatment and said it “sort of supplanted soccer in (his) mind.”

Though his start was purely recreational, after a few years he started ski racing competitively at the high school level, and on the ski race team at the nearby mountain in West Virginia doing well against even his two-legged competitors.

Sundquist said downhill skiing is a great sport for athletes with disabilities because “you’re powered by gravity, so it’s open to a wide variety of ability and disability levels.”

He started to get pretty serious about skiing and moved to Winter Park, Colo. to race full-time. He was named to the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team for the 2006 winter Olympics in Turino, Italy.

And though skiing is his big sport now, he is the only person in history to have been named to both the US Paralympic Ski Team and the U.S. Amputee Soccer Team.

These days, Sundquist seems to really have it all together — he’s a professional athlete, an internationally known speaker, and he has a girlfriend — but he’ll admit it didn’t necessarily come easily.

With skiing, he said he fell a lot at the start, and when it comes to public speaking, well, Sundquist said, “I discovered I was a horrible public speaker when I first started.”

By the time he graduated high school, he started to get good at it he said, and it was a good way to pay for ski racing and grad school. He wasn’t always sure he wanted to be a speaker for a living, but now he said he really likes it and it’s the job that most interests him right now. In addition to speaking, he has a series of humorous and heartfelt videos, you can find them at www.joshsundquist.com, and he’s the author of the book “Just Don’t Fall.”

He worked hard to get better at both skiing and speaking, which leads to the biggest question — how does he maintain such a positive attitude and stay so motivated when things are tough?

To start, at age 9, Sundquist said, “Most of who I was at that point was a product of how my parents had raised me. They deserve most of the credit for me having psychological resilience in the face of this disability.”

And today, he said having a positive attitude is an ongoing choice.

“We all have bad things that happen to us and we can choose whether we want to dwell on them... or make the best of things,” Sundquist said in a phone Tuesday.

Admitting to being human, Sundquist said, “I have not yet reached any plateaus of enlightenment that have eliminated all my problems. I get frustrated and discouraged,” but he makes a conscious effort to recognize what he can change and what he can’t, though his first instinct is to always fight.

Possibly the biggest perk of Sundquist’s speaking career is the travel. He said he and his girlfriend will be in Juneau for five days, during which time they’ll go on a helicopter ride, see glaciers and hike.

If you see him out and about, don’t fret about him needing help, he most likely doesn’t need a hand and said he should have the right crutches for whatever weather Juneau plans to throw at him.

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