”It wasn’t super dangerous. Ten meters¿thirty feet, maybe forty. I was doing a lot more dangerous shit than this,” Marek Schneider says. Knowing him¿something you couldn’t help in just a single conversation¿the possibility for serious harm is never far. “It wasn’t that bad a slam. It happens to people who fall down three stairs: Bad luck.”
What else can you call it? To fully live is to accept risk, but what do you do when a little bad luck rearranges your entire existence?
This 23-year-old now breathes the answer. After sticking a switch 720 over that Austrian gap thirty times by his recollection (as seen in the video Nobody’s Heroes), Schneider slammed on his butt, crushing his L-1 vertebrae and snapping the spinal column. Just as his promising career as a pro snowboarder was taking off, Marek Schneider was paralyzed at 21 years old.
“Luckily I got into an Innsbruck hospital with the best doctor in Europe¿his son is actually a pro snowboarder riding for Smith,” Schneider says. “They flew the doctor in to do my surgery so I don’t have problems with pain at all. I have a little progress with feeling¿I have muscle movement in my legs, but I can’t feel too much on my ass, for example. Some people have trouble pissing and shitting¿I don’t have that. And I can f¿k, which is good. It’s good exercise for my body,” he says with a broad grin.
Flipping grim reality on its bright side is a Schneider specialty. It comes naturally having grown up in Prague, Czechoslovakia (he still lives in the same house) during the Russian communist occupation. As a boy Schneider remembers people waiting in food lines, a fence on the border and guards waiting to shoot you if you dared heading west. His parents printed anti-Communist literature while people were tunneling out of the country.
“The first time I saw the stores in America I was freaking out,” Schneider laughs. “In Czech you had one kind of anything but you didn’t have to work.”
Schneider can speak five languages¿English, German, Russian, Czechoslovakian and a little Slovak-Polish. Skiing by age three, he’s also fluent in the universal language of action. “I was skateboarding but they were really lame. There was no skate shop, my father bought it for me in West Berlin,” Schneider says. “People were freaking on it. Going down the street on a big board with big wheels, people were like, ‘What the f¿k?’ I’m used to people’s attention.”
At this, his friends in the room, the crew of Mt. Bachelor riders who have known him from his many trips there, snicker knowingly. With his hilarious, outgoing personality, Schneider could crack up a convention of grief counselors.
He laughs at this, too, then addresses reality totally without irony or bitterness, “Now I’m a cripple in a wheelchair and people are looking at me wherever I go.”
At fourteen he bought a used snowboard from Czechoslovakia’s champion rider and took to it like the natural athlete he is, cutting up his much-loved home mountain of Chopok, Slovakia. While riders in America were being banned from ski slopes, Schneider’s talent on a board was earning him a following, since, “After fifty years of Communism, anything that was American and fancy was the shit.”
By age eighteen he was a Czech rock star and probably the best rider in Eastern Europe, getting flow from Burton. By nineteen he built Chopok a halfpipe and was inviting his many rider friends to his own snowboard camp. I opened the charming and hilarious letter he sent to SNOWboarding Magazine inviting us to check out his camp, probably the only one that far east at the time. I can still see his handwriting, in just a short couple pages effectively conveying all the stoked, senseless passion for riding that made¿and keeps us¿all snowboarders.
On Burton’s rookie team, Schneider got an improbable offer from Purged Snowboards and signed a contract for $25,000. He never saw a dime, but kept at it, rriding for Crap and Soupkichen’, getting money from Northwave and Black Flys, riding in contests and shooting videos¿a shoo-in for the first Olympics until a single unfair accident changed everything.
Or did it? According to his many friends, Schneider lost the use of his legs but none of what makes him so much fun to be around. A guy who wants to drive an ambulance but swears he’ll never work (“I worked in McDonald’s for two days¿gave too many hamburgers for free to my friends and they kicked my ass out.”) still travels and enjoys many pleasures.
“Not many people in Czech live as good as I do,” Schneider says. “They usually live in small flats¿huge, ugly Communist style. Czech is fun in the way it’s corrupt; you go through shit you would never go through in America. To fly here is like flying fifty years forward.”
Still, he adds, “You wouldn’t believe what kind of problems you have in Czech, especially in a wheelchair. I’m flying to Zurich then Cincinnati to Denver and they’re like, ‘In a wheelchair? Alone?’ Some fat guy had to carry me onto the airplane. The airport in Prague doesn’t even have handicapped access to the bathroom. The buildings all have stairs and stone, it’s all f¿ked up. But on the other hand it’s more freedom than here. You don’t worry about drinking beer on the street.”
Doctors tell him he may walk in a couple years¿even ride again someday. Schneider admits he can’t sit in the chair all day, and that the best way to heal is to do things, so to pass the time he pilots a 1958 motorcycle with a sidecar. He has parachuted out of a plane and rolled his wheelchair on a suspended ropes course (on the rim, without tires). He rides horses and swims. He surfs, shoots guns and rides a sit-ski until he completes his design of a sit-snowboard.
“I was back on the hill four months after the accident,” Schneider says. “It was a trip¿having the same clothes, the same pants, shoes, bags, feeling the same everything. I was in the mountains but couldn’t move my legs. It was still f¿king heaven.”
Maybe more than ever before, Schneider lives his life like an example of what is possible. He flies in the face of how one terrible setback can keep you down forever. He is still rad¿staring right in the eyes of people who look away because they’re afraid of what they might see.
“No bro-brah style here,” Schneider says of the companies that he has tried to get interested in handicapped snowboarding. “They’re scared of it. They think, ‘He’s f¿cked, dead, can’t have fun in his life. It’s not true. They should be happy it never happened to them instead of afraid it will.”