words :: Brian Hockenstein.
Pants or shorts? For most, it’s a simple morning decision, usually based on the weather outside, but for 31-year-old Tyler Turner it’s the difference between a regular day or having everyone he encounters stare at him like a human anomaly. Turner is a double amputee—he lost both legs below the knee after a skydiving accident in 2017—and on “shorts days” he draws a lot of attention. It’s hard not to notice the dude with two robot legs, and the biggest smile in the room.
“The crown jewels,” Turner says as he pulls one particularly future-tech looking set of prosthetics from a selection of six different pair in the back of his SUV. “The BioDapt VF2, the second generation of the Versa Foot. They are so cool it’s not even funny—they’ve got FOX racing shocks in them, with crazy amounts of adjustments available. I don’t have to pull out tools, it’s just click-click-click on these little dials and I can add more knee flexion, whatever I want. These are going to allow me to snowboard again.”
“I don’t want to show up for a participation ribbon, I wanna crush.”
The idea of snowboarding again is one of the reasons Turner is smiling these days. Another reason is because he’s just that kind of guy, the sort who won’t let something like losing both his legs hinder his goals for the future.
Born and raised in Calgary and trained as a photographer in his early 20s, Turner spent the decade prior to his accident leading one of those enchanted lifestyles that makes for an inspiring Instagram feed: surfing, snowboarding, backcountry guiding, driving snowcats, rock climbing, skateboarding—and a newly-discovered passion for skydiving that led him to Victoria, BC to work as an instructor and airborne photographer.
And then, one day, it all came crashing down. Literally.
“The last thing I remember is opening my parachute, looking down and seeing where I was—just doing the exact same thing I’d done a hundred times before.” Turner says. “It was nothing aggressive.”
But something happened. Turner thinks it was likely a partial wing collapse as he performed a tight turn to prepare for landing, but any memories for about 60 seconds before he hit the ground are completely erased.
“What happened after I turned? Did the canopy just collapse? Did I turn too low? I like to think it was a canopy collapse because then its not a reflection of anything I did, of me screwing up. I would love for it to just be a random accident, if that makes any sense… because from what I’ve been told, I drove it into the ground throttle wide open.”
After four days in coma, he woke up in the Intensive Care Unit down one leg with doctors desperately trying to save the other. “They had a whiteboard in my hospital room where anyone with any information about my accident had written it down. They’d drawn out a diagram of the landing field, trying to figure out what happened. Even those first two or three months after the crash, my memory is foggy. I know the stories I have been told but everything is a weird, dreamlike feeling.”
And of course, there was the pain. These days Turner beams positivity and downplays things a lot, but his was a voyage of incredible pain and suffering.
“The pain was brutal but I could deal with it. I feel like in action sports we all deal with pain super well. If you’re going to be dumb you better be tough, and if you want to push it you better be able to take it. I was shot up with fentanyl, ketamine, the works—light it up—but nothing compares to the mental game. Before the accident I was on top of the world, living my best life. Suddenly that goes into being highly dependent on other people, not even capable of feeding myself. I spent a long time doubting, even accepting that it was real, that this was my new life. I didn’t just break a bone… this is my reality forever. Shit.”
To add to the torment, as Turner spent the next year working through rehab and trying to get some semblance of his life back together, it became painfully clear that his remaining leg was going to have to go, despite how hard the doctors had worked to save it. That realization did not come easy.
“We tried everything to save that leg,” Turner says, “but I was pretty sure it wasn’t gonna work. My prosthetic was amazing, highly functional, but I’d try rock climbing or surfing and it wouldn’t go well. I got a few cool pictures so everyone thought I was just crushing it, but really it was incredibly painful and frustrating. It took six people to get me up surfing and I didn’t like that. If that was what the rest of my life was going to be like, sure… okay, but I knew there was a possibility of more—more independence, like in the old days. But I couldn’t do that until my remaining leg was gone or healed. And it wasn’t gonna heal.”
A full year after his accident, doctors agreed to amputate the remaining leg. Surprisingly, it was a hugely positive moment for Turner—he knew that with the proper prosthetics he could get his old life back. Six months later he went in for the surgery that would define the rest of his life. By that point however, he was also dealing with monsters that were deeper and more insidious than any physical injury.
“I was not in a happy place that year, waiting for my other leg to be amputated. It was a really bad, really dark place. I’d come out of the hospital on a power prescription. I was crushing drugs—nothing illegal, all prescribed. But when you are that messed up, the doses are high, and they prescribe a lot of them. And I took them all. The drugs didn’t even mask the pain that well, honestly, but they became an escape. I would try to fight my way off them but it was a heavy spiral and it wasn’t good. Those opiates have talons, man, and they sink in deep.”
“If you’re going to be dumb you better be tough, and if you want to push it you better be able to take it.”
With two prosthetic legs, Turner began looking forward to chasing all the sports he loved—surfing, skydiving, skateboarding, snowboarding—with a new independence. And because his accident happened while he was working, WorkSafe BC was there to support the rehab efforts, help him return to work, and help him reclaim his pre-accident lifestyle as much as possible.
“I’m incredibly grateful for that,” he says. “With the support of WorkSafe I am able to explore a little bit with these prosthetics. I want to see what I can do.”
Thanks to the compressed air shock absorbers built in his Versa Foot, Turner is expecting to do a lot. “Like I said, I can click these dials and get a lot of inflexion. With my other feet, when I’d bend my knees, my heels lift off. That’s inevitable because those only flex a few degrees and they need to store all that energy somewhere. With the Versa Foot, that shock will release and keep my heel on the ground while allowing me to bend my knees up to 28 degrees, which is essential for things like skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing. In snowboarding, especially on your toe-side edge, that shock dampens what your ankle would usually do, absorbing all the bumps and vibrations.”
The Versa Foot was created by Mike Shultz, a trained engineer and professional moto athlete who lost a leg in a snowmobile accident in 2008. Within six months of his accident Shultz had developed and manufactured the Moto Knee, a shock absorber-enhanced prosthetic knee designed for riding dirtbikes. He went on to create the Versa Foot and start a company called BioDapt to make his prosthetics available to other amputees.
“I don’t think the word ‘adapt’ is negative at all,’’ Shultz says. “It simply means to adjust to a new environment or situation. We all adapt to different things in life whether we have all our limbs, or none. There’s nothing like that moment when you see the excitement on someone’s face as they realize they can do something they thought they’d lost, or figure out how to do something they never thought possible.”
Over the past several years BioDapt technology has helped increase the performance level of adaptive athletes and Schultz says his dream is to get to a point where there is no need to separate able-bodied from adaptive athletes in competition.
“I keep saying it’s a great time to be an amputee,” says Turner, “because the technology is so tuned into exactly what you need for each activity. The products are absolutely amazing but they are still incredibly expensive—and for each activity, a lot of the time, you need a different foot.”
Turner estimates that for someone like him to start snowboarding with a pair of Versa Foot prosthetics, plus other components—as well as eight to ten trips to the clinic to test socket settings, it could run anywhere from 20 to 100 thousand dollars.
“I always said I’d like to get to the point where I can look back and say, ‘I wouldn’t change anything’, you know? We’ll see. I think that’s going to be a really cool moment.”
With his plethora of prosthetic limbs, Turner has already returned to skydiving, skateboarding and rock climbing. He’s also surfing, and has cut the amount of assistance required from six people to just one. While he is incredibly grateful for that, the drive to be totally independent remains strong.
“A lot of people have a big switch after an injury like this,” he says. “They flip their lives 180 degrees. I haven’t had that, I’m the same dude chasing the same goals, doing the same things I did before. Probably because I can’t let go of them. These sports are what fuels me and I want to be wholly independent and keep pushing and learning and practicing. I don’t want to show up for a participation ribbon, I wanna crush.”
Outside of that passion, Turner admits he hopes to find ways to give back to the adaptive community—and beyond. “I’ve had so much support from friends and family and regular people, I hope I can find a place where I can help others too. Where can I help? Who can I help? I’m staying open to those opportunities.”
With snow already falling in the Coast Mountains, getting back snowboarding is Turner’s focus. His trademark tenacity is there, but he also remains cautiously realistic.
“At this point, I don’t even know if I can do it,” he says. “I might stand on a board this winter and not be capable. Not that it will stop my drive to figure it out. I always said I’d like to get to the point where I can look back and say, ‘I wouldn’t change anything’, you know? We’ll see. I think that’s going to be a really cool moment.” —ML