Brent Kuemmerle was dealt a bad break in life, losing the lower half of his right leg in a car accident.
Instead of fretting about what he couldn't do because of his disability, he was determined to show what he could do despite that disability.
It's now his desire to coach those who have that same competitive determination.
Kuemmerle, an avid rock climber before his accident in 1995, taught himself to become a better climber with his prosthetic leg. He learned to become a snowboarder when there were basically no opportunities to compete in the sport as a disabled athlete.
Based in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Kuemmerle, a former Rapid City resident, just created a non-profit organization called Tahoe Adaptive Competition Center.
His mission statement is simple: Train any athlete who wants to compete at any form.
“If you want to compete in local competitions, we can do that. If you want to compete in regional competitions, we can do that. If you want to make the U.S. Paralympics team and go to Russia, we can do that,” Kuemmerle said.
Kuemmerle is coaching snowboarding, a sport where competitive coaches were few and far between just after his accident. In fact, when he first started snowboarding – unlike skiing -- the sport wasn't in the Paralympics Games and it was hardly offered as a recreational lesson.
He spent essentially the last 10 years helping create an educational record and the national standards so there is a complete teaching progression available. The 2014 Paralympics Games in Russia will host the sport for the first time.
The goal of most disabled sports organizations, Kuemmerle said, is to allow people with physical challenges to be able to compete or at least participate in sports that they either used to compete in or are interested in. He said that snowboarding is just another avenue for people to slide down the hill.
While there is a tradition of people with disabilities teaching skiing going back to the early 1970s, mostly pioneered by Vietnam War veterans, this is basically a Gulf War veteran kind of sport.
“It seemed like something that really needed to be there, especially in light of our most recent wars and people who are fighting them and are generally coming from a generation where snowboarding is part of what they do,” Kuemmerle said. “Me being a little older (41 years old), I remember when snowboarding wasn't allowed at most resorts. These guys and girls who are coming back now (from war), that's what they grew up doing and that's what they want to compete at.”
Ironically, before his accident, Kuemmerle had never snowboarded and had only skied once in his life when he was about 15, as his father, Chuck, took him to Terry Peak.
“I thought it was about the silliest thing I could ever do,” he said with a laugh. “I didn't have much desire to try it for a lot of years after that.”
Rock climbing was his thing and it was what he wanted to continue to do once he was released from the hospital after his car accident. He was inspired to continue climbing by reading books and talking to such well-known disabled climbers as Mark Wellman and Hugh Herr.
“Now I want to create that path and let people know that it is out there,” he said of competitive snowboarding.
A graduate of Rapid City Stevens High School and Black Hills State University, Kuemmerle moved to the Lake Tahoe area in 1997 for the rock climbing. It was snowboarding that has kept him there. In his first year there, he said he was immediately transpired and wondered why there weren't other opportunities for disabled folks like him to try it.
Like many people who first tried skiing and snowboarding, Kuemmerle learned from his friends who dropped him off at the top of the hill and told him to “hang on.” He said there had to be more to teaching and coaching snowboarding to disabled athletes.
“The reality is that when most people become physically disabled, the first thing that goes through your head is all of the things that you are not going to be able to do,” he said. “As somebody who has been disabled for quite a long time, it's my job to simply let people know that that is not the truth. If you have the desire and the motivation, nothing should stop you from achieving your goals.”
He said that what he is trying to do is provide an assessable ladder for those disabled athletes to get to where they want to go, initially through teaching and now through coaching.
“Somebody who wakes up in the desert after an IED blast now should be able to wake up knowing that opportunities are still there for them to do whatever it is that they want,” he said. “This needs to be institutionalized and that's what I want to do.”
While his background has been teaching snowboarding, his coaching is tied to the discipline of boardercross. Kuemmerle describes it as a snowboarding version of motocross.
“It's going down the course with rollers, banks and jump turns. It can get a little rough in there for sure,” he said. “What I do for coaching, and I did this in Colorado for the last two years, is you're on the hill five days a week, you're there all day and you go to the gym after that. Eating, sleeping and snowboarding is pretty much going to be your life if you want to make it to the Paralympics.”
Kuemmerle said he currently has three athletes committed full time, a number of them on the fence and a number of snowboarders who will be training part-time. Two are disabled veterans.
He said they are always looking for the next great hope.
“Maybe it is someone just back from Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever we're going next,” he said. “They might have just gotten back and they have just tried it. But you can see that potential right off the bat. Coaching is not determination and motivation. We'll work on the skills, that's what coaching is about. I can't give you that motivation, but I can coach the skills. That's why we always want to still maintain focus on beginners or people who have never tried it before but could possibly be the next gold medal winner for America.”
Kuemmerle said he learned that being disabled, nothing comes easy and he doesn't want the next person who wakes up in the hospital and sees that they are missing a leg or is partially paralyzed, to think that they will never do XYZ again.
“The fact is, they have the potential to do all of that,” he said.
That potential, he maintains, comes from opportunities to pursue those goals.
If anyone would know about motivation, determination and opportunities, it's Brent Kuemmerle.