Going Strong to the Paralympic Games . . .

Mauian to defend snowboard-cross gold medal at Pyeongchang Paralympic Games, sets sights on the Olympic Games as well

Evan Strong, who has ties to Maui, competes in snowboard-cross at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. • Joe Kusumoto Photography photo

Evan Strong has big plans.

The 31-year-old Mauian will defend his gold medal in snowboard-cross at the Pyeongchang Paralympic Winter Games on Monday and then will compete in the first running of banked slalom on March 16. He left for South Korea on Friday.

But there’s much more than just the immediate future on Strong’s mind.

He wants to be in Beijing in four years, not for the Paralympics, but for the regular Winter Olympics. He has already competed in many mainstream events against able-bodied foes and is the current national champion in open bordercross.

“I plan on defending my title in the next higher class this coming year,” Strong said. “My goal is to be the most decorated adaptive snowboarder in able-bodied snowboarding of this generation of riders, adaptive riders.”

Evan Strong, who lost his leg in a traffic collision near Haiku 14 years ago that nearly took his life, waves to the crowd after completing a snowboard-cross run in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. • Joe Kusumoto Photography photo

After these games, he will ramp up his competitive schedule for mainstream events.

“After this season, I’m going to be racing able-bodied full time,” he said. “So I can see how far I can go, and yup, become the first-ever Paralympic snowboarder to be an Olympic snowboarder.”

In addition to winning the first-ever snowboard Paralympic gold medal four years ago, he also has four world championship medals.

“Adaptive surfing and adaptive skateboarding is looking really good for the 2024 games in Paris, so I want to be a summer and winter Paralympian,” he said. “So expect a lot more from Evan Strong in the future. . . . The goal in Pyeongchang is two gold medals.”

He is a member of the U.S. snowboarding team and travels with them doing the World Cup circuit from October to April each year. He has won X Games and Dew Tour titles.

Evan Strong receives the gold medal in snowboard-cross at the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games in 2014. He currently is in Pyeongchang, South Korea, to defend his gold medal and to compete for a second one in banked slalom. • Joe Kusumoto Photography photo

He estimates the budget to travel for his sport is north of $100,000 per year.

“I think just on United (Airlines) last year I flew 130,000 nautical miles,” he said. “So I’m on the move all the time.”

The equipment he’s traveling with isn’t cheap, either. Strong travels to South Korea with five snowboards worth more than $1,500 apiece. His separate prosthesis legs for competition and everyday use can run more than $50,000.

It was 14 years ago — as a 17-year-old — that his life changed on Hana Highway near Haiku. He was hit head-on by a drunken driver at 10 a.m. while riding his motorcycle, 10 days before his 18th birthday.

“In a lot of ways, there’s a lot of me that did die that day. I am a new person because of it,” Strong said via phone last week. “Especially at a young age, I was aspiring to be a professional skateboarder. Being hit by a car and having my left leg amputated because of it, it put my world upside down.”

His Valley Isle roots helped him reach where he is today.

“I’m just really grateful that I had such a strong, loving community in Maui,” he said. “A lot of loving and supporting family over there, and my community of friends and skateboarders really lifted me up after my accident and really set me on that path to becoming a world champion.

“It’s been a massive life transformation.”

The accident nearly cost him his life, but “luckily they had really good medical care for me, and they got to keep me here.”

Strong suffered torn arteries, which led to the amputation of his left leg below the knee. He also broke an arm, but “luckily no head injuries and no road rash. I had my skateboard strapped to my backpack and when I got hit, when I got thrown from my bike, I landed on my skateboard and rolled down the road. It’s absolutely crazy — my skateboard saved me from a bunch of road rash.”

Strong still marvels at how he survived that crash. He was in the hospital for four weeks and had five surgeries in the first week of his stay. He suffered major damage to his left thigh and lost 5 inches of femur on impact, and both quads were severed.

“I was thrown 100 feet from my bike, so really lucky to walk away unscathed as much as I was,” he said. “I was wearing a helmet, which saved my life. My head hit the hood of the car and split my helmet up the center. My helmet saved my face from being smashed in.”

His prosthetic leg came about a year later.

“I told the doctors that I needed my leg, I needed my knee to be able to skateboard again,” Strong said. “I knew that I wasn’t going to give it up even if I only had one leg.”

Strong lived on Maui from 1994 to 2006 and still spends plenty of time here, working around his busy schedule.

“Summertime, pau hana, after my winter snowboarding is done,” he said. “Summertime is when I get to be home. I’m in thermals and a jacket and a beanie in the snow and in boots, all winter long.”

Strong moved to Lake Tahoe in October 2007 to work at the Northstar California Resort and to learn how to snowboard. Strong and his wife of seven years, Mariah, have a daughter, Indie. Mariah Strong was born in Pauwela; Indie was born in Peahi three years ago.

“I never snowboarded before my accident, just surfing, skateboarding and mountain biking,” he said. “Just that active lifestyle on Maui – a lot of downhill skateboarding down Haleakala. That’s a lot like snowboarding, so that really gave me the foundation to excel in snowboarding.”

Strong was featured on Wheaties cereal boxes after his win in Sochi, Russia.

“It’s a really cool time for Paralympians and just adaptive athletes in general,” Strong said. “NBC started broadcasting Paralympics in London. The endorsements and companies are really starting to pay attention to Paralympic athletes, so it’s a really exciting time.

“To be the first Paralympian on a Wheaties box, it was a major honor and acknowledgement for what I’d done. My story is pretty surreal and unreal — just been enjoying the ride.”

* Robert Collias can be reached at rcollias@mauinews.com.