Editor's note: This is the second in a series of profiles of Utah athletes competing in the 2014 Paralympic Games.
SALT LAKE CITY — The blast knocked the breath out of Tyler Burdick and created a cloud of sand so thick, he couldn’t see anything.
“I couldn’t see 6 inches in front of my face,” said Burdick. “I didn’t know I was hurt. Everyone else was unconscious.”
He tried to get to his feet, but his legs just collapsed. That’s when he knew, “This is bad.”
A massive roadside bomb stole the Cyprus High graduate’s dream of becoming a Navy SEAL. But his passion for the outdoors, for sports and for competition would help him find a way to represent his country in a way he never dreamed possible — especially not in the months after he was injured.
“To represent my country, it’s a huge honor,” he said of competing for the U.S. Paralympic snowboard team in Sochi next week. “I was definitely, in my mind, going to make a career out of the Navy. When it came to an end, I was really at a loss. There was an emptiness inside of me. When I got into snowboard cross last year, and now the Paralympics, to be able to represent my country, it’s like having that feeling again.”
The son of an emergency room doctor, Burdick was born in Salt Lake City but moved around a lot. He even went to boarding school in Salsbury, Austria, until his senior year, when he returned to Utah and graduated from Cyprus. Through all of his travels, he made his way to ski slopes, usually back home in Utah, each winter.
“I love snowboarding,” he said. “The freedom of going fast, sideways down the mountain is awesome.”
He attended the University of Utah, but his “passion for the hill” exceeded his commitment to college, and he eventually dropped out. He “did the ski-bum thing” for four or five years, and then, at age 25, he realized he wanted more than fresh powder.
"I wanted some direction and discipline in my life,” he said. “I realized I probably should have stayed in school. I’d blown my opportunities to have school paid for.”
He decided to enlist in the Navy to become a combat medic for the Marine Corps. It was a career inspired by his grandfather’s military service (Vietnam) and his father’s career as an emergency room doctor.
“My ultimate goal was to become a Navy SEAL,” he said. “Just before I got blown up in Afghanistan, I submitted a request to go to Navy SEAL training.”
The 32-year-old loved everything about his military service.
“I felt like I found my direction in life,” he said.
While Navy bootcamp was “pretty easy,” he got the experience he craved when he went through battlefield medical training.
His first deployment was an eight-month stint in Fallujah, Iraq. In 2009, he volunteered for an extra deployment as another unit needed medics.
“They’d all been killed or injured, and they needed replacements in Afghanistan, the Helmand Province,” he said. “My battalion didn’t have a deployment schedule. I trained to go save lives, go save Marines. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to stay back in the states and train.”
That assignment lasted three months.
“I was home for about three weeks when my original battalion was sent to southern Afghanistan, the same area in January 2010,” he said. “I was really happy to be going back.”
He knows it’s not a job everyone would embrace. But it fulfilled him like nothing had.
“It was hard,” he said. “It was a tough job, but I never really let it get me down. The people who didn’t make it weren’t going to make it. ... There was work to be done, lives to save — not just Marines, but Afghan (people). I just wanted to do my job.”
And that’s what he was doing on July 22, 2010, when he and a handful of others were showing the leadership of the unit that was going to take their place around the area of operation. They were introducing them to key players, local leaders. There was no such thing as a routine assignment in this part of the country.
“The area we were in was extremely dangerous,” he said. “Our company had squads engaged in fights almost every day.”
Officials estimate the explosive device that injured Burdick contained between 150 and 200 pounds of explosives. Luckily, they were in one of the new, heavily armored trucks that actually has a V-shape undercarriage in anticipation of roadside bombs.
“It directs the blast away from the truck,” he said.
His legs were so badly damaged that doctors told him he should have them amputated.
“They said I would never walk on these legs,” he said. “My father is a physician, and he looked at everything and talked me out of amputating.”
Burdick spent the next few years navigating an excruciatingly slow and painful recovery.
“I watched guys who lost their legs months after me leave, and I was still in a wheelchair,” he said. “They were out running and climbing mountains. So about a year after my injury, I told my doctors I changed my mind; I wanted to amputate.” But it was about that time he learned of revolutionary new leg braces that would help him recover not just the ability to walk but to enjoy the active lifestyle he had before the blast.
He didn’t know he could snowboard again until he saw a video of snowboarder Amy Purdy.
He found opportunities through the National Ability Center in Park City, and soon he was competing in para-snowboarding with Team Utah. In his first season as an international competitor, he had several top 10 finishes. At the 2013 U.S. Paralympic national championships, he earned a silver medal, which earned him a spot on the U.S. Paralympic B team.
He said his love of the outdoors helped him through his darkest days of recovery.
“Just having that passion for the sport, having something to work for, having a sport you love that no matter how bad it hurts or how cold it is outside, you still want to go do it, that’s more valuable than anything,” he said. “If you have that, you have everything you need.”
Burdick said he knows he’s a long shot for a medal in Sochi, but he’s just thrilled and honored to be participating in the sport’s Paralympic debut.
“I’m nervous and excited,” he said. “I really don’t know what to expect. ... It’s so much fun just to be out there competing. The result is not nearly as important to me as showing the world what we’re capable of.”
Burdick said he does find himself explaining what the Paralympics are and just how competitive the games are.
“It’s spectacular to watch people who’ve overcome disabilities, to watch someone with a prosthetic do what we do,” he said. “ You would never know any of us have any kind of impairment. ... It takes so much passion and love for the sport to enable somebody with an amputation or impairment to race down a course the way we do.”
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