By Martin Boyce
In 2003, John Leslie was a 10-year-old small-town boy from Arnprior, Ont. who loved hockey.
After cancer treatment left him without part of his left leg and a prosthetic in its place, he wanted to come full circle and become a prosthetist, specializing in the very thing that changed his life. He studied hard throughout high school to accomplish his goal and took up snowboarding on the side.
Fast-forward almost 15 years and the Arnprior kid is now a two-time Paralympic snowboarder, “living every day in disbelief,” as he puts it.
Leslie’s cancer was a bump found behind his knee that turned out to be osteogenic sarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Because of his love of sport, he opted for the Van Nes rotationplasty that allowed him to continue playing stand-up hockey at the time.
After parting ways with hockey in favour of his part-time job at the time, Leslie took up snowboarding to still be outside with his friends. Looking back now, he says snowboarding filled a void in his life.
“It’s hard to imagine my life without snowboarding,” he reflects. “It kind of fell together in a nice way. Snowboarding has really given me a stable goal and life lessons through traveling and dealing with people.”
After racing with able-bodied snowboarders in high school, Leslie quickly made his way up the Canadian para-snowboarding ranks and was invited to his first World Cup race in Lake Louise, Alta. in 2011 where he placed 5th.
He has since gone on to win multiple World Cup medals and in his most recent tune-ups for the Paralympics, at the Dew Tour and a World Cup race at Big White in B.C., he finished top 5 in the banked slalom.
Para-snowboarding made its Paralympic debut in Sochi in 2014 with a men’s and women’s border cross event. The International Paralympic Committee has introduced banked slalom to the program for 2018 as well as divided athletes into three classifications based on their disability: LL-1 (above the knee impairment), LL-2 (below the knee impairment) and UB (upper-body impairment).
“There’s been some positive changes to the sport that I think people will enjoy a lot more and it provides a more fair playing field,” says Leslie. “I think people should be excited for the Paralympics this year.”
Despite being only 25 years old, Leslie is one of two veterans on Canada’s para-snowboarding team heading to Pyeongchang. He says that has given him the opportunity to take on a new role with the team.
“I try to provide my experience going to the Games before and trying to get them stoked out for it,” signals Leslie. “They’re confident and they’ve done a lot of hard work to be there so we’re excited. We have a good team.”
Leslie finished 7th in 2014 and has since relocated to Whistler, B.C. to train as a full-time athlete. “I’ve taken the steps to win a medal and I’m feeling good and confident and I’m right in there with the rest of the guys,” he notes.
It’s a grueling journey to the Paralympics, with non-stop training for Leslie. He spends most of his mornings on the snow doing jumps, in the border-cross tracks or just “rippin’ some pow” if the snow calls for it. He gets back in for lunch, heads to the gym and in between takes care of his dog.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” he says, noting he’s introduced journaling and yoga meditation to help with the mental side of the daily grind.
“That’s where I really rely on my support team. You’ve got to take care of your mental health as well as your physical health,” he explains. “I’m really lucky to have such a good support system. I live in a great environment and I’m just the tip of an iceberg when it comes to the support team.”
As one of the Canadian pioneers of this “thrilling” sport, he says he wants to be a leader and plans on giving back to the para-snowboard community when his time racing is over. In the meantime, however, he’s ready to get into the start gate in Pyeongchang.
“You have to take a moment to look up,” notes Leslie of his pre-race routine. “Generally, to be doing what I’m doing, you’re in a beautiful place surrounded by mountains and snow and sometimes you get a beautiful sunny day and you just have to look up and realize where you are and what you’re doing. And that always sets me up for a good run.”
Despite being a two-time Paralympian and finishing as the top Canadian four years ago in Sochi, Leslie says he never would’ve thought he’d be a Paralympic snowboarder.
“I guess it still really hasn’t sunk in,” he admits. “I live every single day in disbelief that this is my career.”