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Silverthorne para snowboarder eyes Beijing Paralympics after World Cup podiums

Joe Pleban wins two snowboardcross bronze medals in Italy

Joe Pleban of Silverthorne races at the World Para Snowboard World Cup in Colere, Italy, in April.
Photo by Alessandro Scarpa

Joe Pleban of Silverthorne has turned his adaptive snowboard dreams into a reality and is racing like a medal contender a year out from the 2022 Beijing Paralympics in China.

“It would mean the world,” Pleban said. “It’s the whole goal, everything we are working toward. … I want to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to the big show. I’m going to go represent the U.S. for you guys, and all the support you put into me is going to pay off.”

The Fredericksburg, Virginia, native won a pair of bronze medals at a double World Cup snowboardcross event in Colere, Italy, in April. It was the only World Cup of the short international season for American para snowboarders.



Pleban’s result in the two snowboardcross races bumped up his world ranking in his quest to make his first American Paralympic team seven years after he elected to amputate his left foot.

Pleban, 30, had his foot amputated due to the rare joint disease pigmented villonodular synovitis. He said the condition resulted in thousands of tiny tumors in his ankle as a teenager, eating away at his cartilage. After a couple of surgeries and radiation therapy did not improve his condition, Pleban opted for amputation.



Pleban said the decision came as he saw his ability to play sports wither over time. It was ultimately the sport of snowboarding that was the final athletic endeavor Pleban’s ankle could withstand. When that was no longer possible — and with the reality of Pleban using a cane in his early 20s — he knew a change had to come.

“I wasn’t going to go through the rest of my life not playing sports or snowboarding,” Pleban said. “There were a couple of options, including an ankle fusion. But the way that was presented to me and the way I understood it, I wouldn’t be as active as I wanted to be with an ankle fusion.

“Then one day, I was watching Paralympic snowboarding and seeing the guys snowboarding boarder cross courses with one leg, and I was like, ‘Alright, that’s it. Let’s cut this thing off and hit the slopes.’”

After the June 2014 surgery, Pleban relocated to Summit County to train with Adaptive Action Sports, the para snowboard club that had produced many of the United States’ best riders. Then two seasons ago, Pleban was named to the U.S. National Team. That’s an honor for the self-described proud member of a military family whose original plan before his amputation was to join the Navy.

The Americans’ performance in Italy last month earned the country the most para snowboarding spots — eight — of any country slated to compete in Beijing.

Pleban is able to ride with a prosthetic foot commonly used among para riders, the BioDapt Versa Foot. The highly customizable prosthetic allows a racer like Pleban to dial in how the prosthetic rides through heel- and toe-side turns when navigating the bumps, jumps and banks of a snowboardcross course.

Joe Pleban of Silverthorne, second from right, races at the World Para Snowboard World Cup in Colere, Italy, in April.
Photo by Alessandro Scarpa

The Italian World Cup was the U.S.’s first competition in more than a year, and Pleban raced in the Lower Limb 2 division. He described the racing category as a catch-all for those riders with a lower-limb disability that does not affect more than one joint in the lower limb. Riders who have such a situation — including an above-the-knee amputation or two amputated feet — race in Lower Limb 1 while single-leg, below-knee amputees or racers with conditions such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis race in Lower Limb 2.

Pleban raced well enough in the early time trial rounds at the Italian World Cups to earn himself byes into later rounds of racing heats. In those heats, Pleban and two-time American Paralympic medalist Keith Gabel rose to the top. Pleban said to win the bronze medals, he had to tactfully choose when to try to pass other racers and had to keep an eye out for slow, slushy snow and “bomb hole” divots in the terrain.

Pleban said Adaptive Action Sports co-founder Daniel Gale and coach Nichole Mason helped him advance his riding at Copper Mountain Resort this year despite a lack of competitions. And heading onto the road to Beijing, he said his primary focus is to become a better banked slalom rider and to elevate his strength and conditioning in order to ride consistently at a high level through Paralympic qualification.

“Earlier in my career, it was a big deal to break into the top 10 as a result, and if that progressed to breaking into the top five, that would be amazing,” Pleban said. “So to progress to the point of a double podium at a World Cup shows how far I’ve come since this all started. And thanks to Adaptive Action Sports for laying that foundation.”

Joe Pleban of Silverthorne, right, celebrates a bronze medal in snowboardcross at the World Para Snowboard World Cup in Colere, Italy, in April.
Photo by Alessandro Scarpa

 


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