The Australian is competing in Pyeongchang less than four years after suffering life-changing injuries in an attack by two Great White sharks
Paralympians enter their chosen sport for all sorts of reasons – whether they have experienced a life-long disability or had a life-changing illness or event – but few have a back-story as dramatic as Australian para-snowboarder Sean Pollard.
Pollard’s life was changed in just a couple of minutes when he was attacked by two Great White sharks while surfing in Esperance in October 2014, losing his left arm and his right hand in his struggle to escape.
In the aftermath of the attack he needed seven blood transfusions amounting to three litres of blood. “I was pretty lucky to get to hospital within an hour of the attack” he recalls. It took over 150 stitches to close the wounds that had threatened his life, and he spent weeks in hospital.
He described the recovery process as “fairly steep”, but part of that recovery has been his adoption of snowboarding in 2015. He’d never seen snow before taking up the sport, but competed in the Paralympics for the first time on Monday, finishing 9th in the men’s snowboard cross SB-UL. He lost his race by just 0.13 seconds to Italian Jacopo Luchini, who progressed to the quarter-finals in Pollard’s place.
“The thing I get out of snowboarding, which is really similar to surfing, is that presence in the moment” he explains. “You’re just there in the moment and everything else in your life just blurs out the faster you go.”
The event was won by national team-mate Simon Patmore. It was Australia’s first Winter Paralympics gold medal in 16 years.
Pollard’s disability gives him an unconventional starting move. Whereas most para-snowboarders are able to push themselves off, Pollard has to jump out of the gate, and rely more on building up momentum in the first part of the course.
“The best way for me to get out,” he explains “is to have my board sideways, put the edge in, then kind of jump out.” He has been disappointed that the opening section of the run in Pyeongchang is less steep than some of the other courses he has raced on.
Pollard is 26, and a qualified electrician. Despite the shark attack, he still surfs – using special prosthetic paddles in place of his arm and hands. “I pretty much go out and get dumped” he told Australia’s ABC news. “I’ll be happy to get back to my feet on one wave out of 20 just because it’s so hard to paddle, and push up, and catch a wave.”
He will be back in Paralympic action with a training session on Thursday and then competing in the Banked Slalom on Friday. “I definitely feel like there’s room for improvement” he says. “I’ve only been snowboarding for almost three years now, so it’s not long. It’s definitely a journey.”