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Interview Stacy Kohut

Interview With Stacy Kohut

Stacy Kohut is a Paralympic and World Champion Gold Medal winner. He has competed and won medals at the Paralympics in Lillehammer, Norway and Nagano, Japan. He is also part owner/operator of R-ONE, a four wheel downhill mountain bike called a Fourcross, that is used in the integrated (meaning disabled and able bodied people compete together) sport of Fourcrossing. Click to see a video bio of Stacy Kohut. Dr Gene Emmer from 'Wheelchair' recently interviewed Stacy in order to better understand the opportunities and challenges of a champion athlete who happens to be in a wheelchair.

W: Tell us more about your athletic accomplishments. We know you have earned a lot of medals. How did you get started?

SK: First of all, let me say how honored I am to have you interview me, this site is a vast collection of info and knowledge, and its very cool to be asked to be a part of it.

My athletic achievements have always been apart of my life. Starting in the 1980s with the sport of BMX racing and Off Road MX racing, continuing throughout my teenage years in the non-competitive sport of skateboarding, then into my life as a sit down athlete. I broke my back in 1992, so when you sit back and take a look at the bigger picture, my achievements in sit sports just blend right in with the rest of my life.

W: So what do you see are the differences in the sports you do now compared to the sports you did before you were injured?

SK: You know, there is not much difference in the sports I do sitting down.

Racing BMX was a very competitive thing when I was a kid, I wanted to absolutely destroy everyone of my competitors when I got to the starting line. This attitude and methodology was used in my sitskiing career, as I was not there to make friends or to socialize. I was there to try to destroy the race track and my competitors. I also have carried this over to the sport of Fourcross, and let me tell you, on race day, between 9am and 5 pm, I am focused on the task at hand.

On the other end of the scale, when you skateboard vertical ramps at a fairly high level, the overall vibe of the skate session is much more encouraging, much more expressing yourself rather than being super competitive and wanting to beat everyone. It was a great background to have when I went into sit sports, the 2 extremely different attitudes toward sport sure helped balance my overall view of high level sport.

W: What was the path that you took to become a Paralympic Champion?

SK: The path I took after 1992 was one of purpose and direction. There were many small goals I also challenged myself with while along the path to the ultimate goal, which was winning on an international level, and then learning how to repeat the achievement throughout the ski racing season. Although my able bodied integrated race training was always very intense, sometimes more intense than the races I would be attending, I always found a way to stay grounded by going freeskiing in powder, in the bumps, the halfpipe or the terrain park.

In these non racing environments I was able to express myself, encourage others, and generally remember why I skied in the first place, for FUN!

W: What advice do you have for a young athlete that wants to do something like you did?

SK: I advise every athlete, disabled and able bodies the same thing: Be yourself. Dont let the job of being a ski racer or athlete become a clich or a stereotype. Have fun, learn to laugh when you can, because if you want to be the very best in the world and stand atop the podium at the Winter Paralympic or Olympic Games, you need to be extremely intense in many aspects of your life. Be yourself and learn when to let yourself relax.

In the sport of skiing, the other bit of advice would be to ski the MOST days you can in a single season. It was not uncommon for me to have 140 ski days in 10 month period between 1994-2002. Being a World and Paralympic Champion is a job. Watch a video clip of Stacy sit skiing)

As far a being an athlete in a wheelchair, try to be as independent as possible. Use daily life and routines to get tough. Haul your own gear, set yourself up in the morning and during transition periods during the day. Be the first on the track, course, or lift. Try to beat all the able bodied racers throughout the day with the little things. Be the first in line for everything. Try to integrate into local able bodied training sessions as much as possible.

And back to the general toughness issue, I learnt very early on from some of the pioneers of high performance wheelchair sport, that being tough physically, mentally, and spiritually was a great asset in sport and life.

W: What kind of media attention have you received?

SK: All of it! I can truly say I have had some media exposure in just about every type of media there is. Believe it or not, print interview and radio interviews are 2 of my favorite types of media, great ways to say something a little more in-depth. I have been a pioneer in a particular genre of wheelchair sport within the media, its been a adventure thats for sure!! Being able to work with the mainstream media to expose what I and my peers do, to high numbers of people (worldwide), is one of my proudest achievements.

I have many tales both positive and negative about breaking thru into the mainstream media. Dont forget I was a color commentator sent to cover the Winter Paralympics in Torino 2006. I have been on both sides of the camera.

W: Stacy, what would happen if you competed against professional able-bodied skier? Who do you think would get to the bottom first?

SK: When it gets right down to it, in most sports, the able-bodied competitor will always be faster or higher or stronger than his or her disabled competitor. This is most true when comparing say, Herman Meier to Klaus Salzmann, but what about comparing performance over an entire career? What is the win/loss record? How many medals did the athletes win at the Olympics or Paralympics? You can then see how the disabled athletes can compete with their able bodied counterparts

There are many other ways to beat an able bodied counterpart.

W: What about other sports such as wheelchair curling? Do you think that wheelchair athletes can compete against able bodied athletes in some sports? Which ones?

SK: The most obvious to me is motorsport. There have been many times that a disabled motorsport athlete has performed on par, if not better than those that are able bodied. I truly wish motorsport was more open to having someone like me attend an open tryout for a racing team. Having competed for so long, at dangerous and fast sports, with success, has to have some value to a race team.

W: Why arent motorsports open to disabled athletes?

SK: I still believe there is a stigma attached with disabilities and motorsports. To some extent this is across the board in all high risk sports. High risk sports are very dangerous, I mean how much do you promote an athlete who is in a situation that is always labeled as a tragedy when someone crashes or gets hurt in that sport?

Somewhere, in the back of some of the minds of public relations and media reps, do they think by promoting, say a racecar driver who uses a wheelchair, they are advertising a possible injury to all their able bodied customers?

W: Are there any good integrated (where disabled and able bodied athletes compete together) sports. Why not?

SK: Really when it comes down to it, there are a lot of sports that are already integrated at the fullest level. The athlete with the disability is the one that is responsible for how much, or how little he or she integrates. There is always an able bodied club to train with, always a race or event that has absolutely no problems with an adaptive athlete entering the race. Heck, here in North America it is encouraged. Lets see, mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding, surfing, Karting, skateboarding, man o man, the list goes on. In reality, thats how all the extreme adaptive sports were started. What it took was someone to just get in there, and enter an event or do a race.

See there, now thats integrated. So simple. Heres how the rest of the story goes though

After one individual has entered a few events, the word gets out, and more people who may use adaptive equipment for the said sport, will now decide to attend and enter the event themselves. Great.

Now somebody comes up with an idea to start a class, or a race within a race at a certain event. This race within a race will be participated in by adaptive athletes. Maybe there will be awards given out? As an adaptive athlete what feels better, a first place in the newly formed adaptive class or that 38th place out of 80 racers in the class that you have been racing for a few years now? You were fully integrated in your age and ability class. Remember? It was a fully integrated class that you were in, wasnt it?

It can get very complicated.

The MOST important thing for me is that the EVENTS are integrated. You can divide up classes all you want, but lets make sure that the race itself is fully integrated within an able bodied event. This is the optimum situation for media coverage, sponsor relations, building a fan base, and promoting a product the entire sport community uses, not just an adaptive product. When Stacy Kohut wears, uses, and promotes Oakley goggles, Oakley doesnt care if I promote to other people in wheelchairs, thats a given, what a company like Oakley wants to see is me promoting their product to all cyclists and lifestyle users. They want to see me integrated, they want to see me at the big events, they want me to be a part of the bigger picture.

I just dont know if separating from the able bodied events once the adaptive class has grown is doing anything for athletes like me who need to attract sponsors and outside industry support to increase the amount of events I attend. The more events and races, the more I expose my sponsors association with myself and my sport to the masses. This is what keeps my sponsors interested in supporting me, my media, and my event promotion.

I would love to talk more about this with you Gene.

W: What did you think about the X-Games including disabled athletes in the winter competitions this year?

SK: Well, not very much I hate to say.

The word on the street was only one practice run allowed for the contestants. Half the field did not qualify, or ski during qualifications. There were 16 athletes on the entry sheet, only 6 qualified. It does not sound like the sit skiing class was thought of too much in the overall scheme of things. The only thing I pulled off the X -Games site was an inspirational/bad boy story on Kevin Bramble and a single results page. No talking about the sport, the dangers, the challenges, or the skill level involved.Just the usual, we have all seen/heard before. I dont believe it was promoted properly. I really dont know sometimes..

2007 was the year that this race became official in the eyes of the X- Games, the last 3 years have been demonstration events. We will see where the X- Games go from here with the sit skiing class.

W: Tell us about your wheelchair skateboarding. How and when did you begin?

SK: I vaguely remember messing around with a wheelchair at one of the many skate ramps/parks in my earlier years. We would roll into the vert ramp with an office chair; we would roll around in the chrome geriatric wheelchair. Of course we did these stunts as able bodied skateboarders, just goofing around.

It really didnt take long before I was rolling around small halfpipes and skateparks after I became paralyzed. Within a year of breaking my back I was dropping into skateramps and skateparks, from the top of the structures, and really going for it. I also did A LOT of streetskating my first 5 years in a wheelchair too. Streetskating is like going surfing, you are rolling down the street, looking for hits, looking for places to do a slide here, or a skid there. Always trying to gain momentum from some part of the environment. Its tons of fun. Good times.

W:Do you think that wheelchair skateboarding will become a Paralympic event?

SK:Truthfully I would never want to see the skateboarding in a wheelchair thing become a Paralympic sport. Anyway, for myself, its one of those sports that just needs to develop into its own thing, which ever way it may be. The Paralympics certainly are not the be all, end all for adaptive sports.

I believe there are many opportunities outside the Paralympic environment. Look at the huge bite the X-Games has taken out of the 50 and under viewership of the Olympics.., there is much room to grow adaptive sports.

W:Are you still active in skateboarding? Have you competed anywhere?

SK:Of course I am still active, but I have never attended a competitive event, yet. Then of course the question comes up, SHOULD a judged sport make an appearance in the Paralympics? Is there a judged event in the Paralympics already? Who knows? I do know this, that the evolution of the sport of wheelchair skateboarding will follow the same path as the evolution of skateboarding. This path might be on a microscopic level, but so far the path is identical. It starts with kids that reject traditional or stick and ball sports, and it grows from there. And as of right now, those kids that rejected stick and ball sports are not in the Olympics, so I cant see them being in the Paralympics. Remember these kids not only rejected the sports, but the culture that went along with it.

Besides, Paralympics or Olympics, I dont believe that judged events should be included. Lets leave the judges for the figure skaters.

W: Stacy, I saw that you are sponsored by Adidas, and appear in some cool Adidas ads. Tell us more about that? How did you get those opportunities?

SK: The coolest thing about the commercials for me was, I was performing in a sport that I originated. Riding a wheelchair in a skateboard environment had never been done before, at least not seriously.

Anyways, it was cool that even after winning Paralympic and World Championship Gold Medals, and ripping it up in my Fourcross, it was the wheelchair skateboarding that finally attracted a major company to inquire about me doing some promotional work with them. It was fitting.

I never was and am still not sponsored by Adidas, I just did that commercial for them, and that was it. I was paid a proper amount, it was a 2 year contract of unlimited usage of video footage and photos from the sessions. Fair deal.

W: So you did not reach out to them first? They just called you one day? How did they know about your skateboarding?

SK: The wonders of the internet!!

I always have been a huge self-promoter, and as soon as what I was doing on the skateboard ramps was worth being photographed, it was. Same thing with my sit skiing career, as soon as what I was doing was good enough, bam, I was getting photos and interviews and TV coverage. The contacts I made and the small media buzz I created was fully self-generated. Word got out. My Gold Medal win in 1994 combined with double World Championship wins in 1996 created international and national media exposure, and when the internet got more popular in the mid 1990s, the media and info about my career and sports was quickly moved to the web. Adidas was looking for something and someone like me, and well, thru the internet, they found me. It was 2004, it had been almost a full 12 years since I began riding my wheelchair in the skateparks, and the mainstream media was just catching up. I was more than ready.

I did the commercial under one stipulation; the word inspiration was not to be used.

I figured these guys understood where I was coming from, and they also shared my views on who I was and what I was doing, so we did it. The commercials turned out great and the photos used in the ad campaign were utilized all over the globe. People would send me photos through email of where they had seen my ad placed. The ad went over huge in Asia, the adaptive community really appreciated the shock value of the photos etc. Pictures really do say a 1000 words, especially when words in some societies are not necessarily encouraged. Being disabled in Asia has been a thing of shame for so long, its really cool to see them want to catch up to what we got going on over here in North America. If the ad campaign helped one kid, somewhere on this planet breakout and be what he or she can be, then I feel good about the impact. (Watch the 'Impossible is Nothing', Adidas commercial). 

W: I understand that one of your goals is to become a spokesperson for a major company. How is that going? What are the challenges that you see?

SK: The last challenge is to get mainstream media and the big companies to finally get over the inspiration hurdle. Athletes like myself need to be promoted for what we are, sports entertainment. We are out there doing our thing, and the very first human reaction a spectator has is of being entertained, he or she is viewing sports entertainment. The inspiration thing may come later, but its all about sports entertainment.

Dont believe me? Go watch a Paralympic basketball or sledgehockey gold medal match. Its great entertainment, the kind that needs to be on T.V., its the worlds most perfect reality show.

Most people are too busy being entertained by my sports to be inspired. Like I said, the inspiration comes hours/days later.

W: Are you represented by an agent? Have you tried to get any representation?

SK: I would love to have an agent; it is just hard to find someone who believes in me as much as I do. Its hard for an agent to fully wrap their thoughts around what can be done with an athlete such as me, when there is no real T.V. coverage. Everything, all media endeavors, must be self-generated. An agent usually looks at the return for their effort and says We love what you do, its marketable, but we are going to pass.

W: What kind of advice do you have for other wheelchair athletes who want to get sponsored by a company?

SK: Win. Talk about the win, the sport, the journey. Promote.

It takes a lot of perseverance, and more than anything, you must be at the top of your sports game. Your performance must stand out.

W: What do you think is the future for wheelchair athletes? What needs to be done so that wheelchair athletes get taken more seriously by the media and by potential sponsor?

SK: Plain and simple its television. The sports must be covered with visuals, with interviews, and with sponsors in the EXACT same way as able bodied sport. And you know what? Its just not happening now.

W: Any ideas about how to make that happen?

SK: Its a huge step in trust for the established media, but they have to listen to us, the ex athletes, on how to portray adaptive sports. Thats a huge step that requires massive amounts of social movement across a wide range of demographics and industries. Its A Huge Step.

W: What can you tell us about Fourcross racing? How long has it been around?

SK: Fourcross racing is coolest sport I have ever done. Period. Thats says a lot. The sport was invented in the late 80s to early 90s. The pioneer builder was able bodied. The pioneer racer was very aggressive with his riding and proactive in promoting himself and the sport. These two people, John Castellano (builder) and John Davis (racer) pretty much laid out the blueprint for what was possible for those with the right long term vision. Castellano was and is able bodied, but for me, all it took was one look at the size of the smile he had on his face when he was riding the four-wheeler, to realize that this sport was for everyone. Able bodied and disabled alike. Castellano could ride too, he knew how to move around in the bike, he knew how to brake, and he looked good sitting in the four-wheeler, and like I said, it never appeared to be an adaptive sport, it just seemed like a sitdown sport, much like A.T.V.s. Not everyone is going to want to ride in an off road setting with 2 wheels, look at the size of the aforementioned A.T.V. industry, its huge. The same thing will happen with all these mountain bike parks that are growing all over the planet.

We at R-ONE would never say no to full integration and able bodied full involvement. Anyone can ride the Fourcross.

The sport is fully integrated into mainstream, big promotion, mountain bike racing events, and its just perfect!! Its not adaptive, its not handi sport, its not Paralympic, its not Special Olympic, its just mountain bike racing in a mainstream, fully integrated environment. Life is not segregated, why should sport?

The mountain bike community has been very supportive of this sport and the leaders of the sport. They want to see it grow, but they are cool enough to let us, the ones that have the most passion, grow the sport and the industry. The mountain bike world does not want to wrestle control of the sport away from us, they dont see any need to call it adaptive, they see no need to segregate us and make us attend smaller, less exposed events. We the riders can dictate the direction, they listen to us, they respond to our suggestions, they encourage our numbers to grow, they know we are a part of the bigger picture in the mountain bike scene.

Fourcross is a gravity sport, it is based around the sport of downhill mountain biking. Of course the culture of downhill mountain biking is also a big part of the Fourcross sport, and this culture is reflected in a lot of what we as racers and builders do.

Fourcross will follow the path of downhill mountain biking, it is the most logical way. No need to segregate, no need to step away from the downhill world. The downhill mountain biking world is healthy, is evolving, and growing, Fourcross is a part of that.

Should downhill mountain biking be in the Olympics? There are many answers to that question, but as of now, downhill mountain bike racing is not in the Olympics, and no one seems to care. Same thing with the Paralympics, Fourcross has no intentions of becoming part of the Paralympic family, it just doesnt fit.

Thats okay, there are so many other opportunities to grow the sport of Fourcross, and all of them are fully integrated, just like life. (Watch a video of Stacy demonstrating Fourcross. )

I would love to give a few shout outs and thank you to all those who make it possible for me to be me..

Big thanks toTroy Lee Designs, Oakley, Fox Racing Shox, Sun Rims, Maxxis Tires, Hayes Brakes, R-ONE (www.r-onefourcross.com), Phil Wood, Whistler Mountain Bike Park, family, friends, fans, my mechanics, all the photographers out there, and all the interested media!!!!!

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