The ill-fated day when Mike Schultz lost his leg in a snocross competition changed his life forever. What he didn’t know was that he would be able to turn the tragedy into an opportunity.
When US snowmobile racer “Monster” Mike Schultz lost his leg, he knew life would be different. What he didn’t know was how different.
Schultz began his snocross career in 1998 when he was a junior in high school, a time when most of us are still learning to drive the family car. He quickly progressed to semi-pro, and by 2003, he was racing full-time on the pro circuit. “I worked my way up,” says Schultz.
“Going into the 2008 season, I was in my prime, one of the top five guys in the world on a snowmobile. I was living my dream.”
Schultz had a big break that year, signing on with Warnert Racing, a premier snocross team based in St Cloud, Minnesota. But during the second national round in Ironwood, Michigan, disaster struck. “It was the first qualifying race of the weekend,” explains Schultz. “I had a horrible start and was pushing hard for the transfer spot so I could make the finals. Coming down the hill, the sled got a little squirrelly and bucked me off. I’d crashed like that a hundred times before and walked away.”
But this time was different. “Instinctively, I put my leg out to brace my fall,” he recalls.
“When I hit the ground, my knee hyper-extended. It just blew apart.” Things quickly went from bad to worse. A nearby snowstorm grounded all helicopter flights that day, so Schultz had to ride by ambulance to the nearest trauma center. “It was five hours before I got to a trauma surgeon,” he says. “They tried to save it, but three days after the accident, I’d gone through 47 units of blood, and my kidneys were shutting down. The doctors woke me up to tell me they were amputating my leg.”
Schultz spent 13 days in the hospital. “I rebounded pretty quickly because of my physical condition,” he says. “They sent me home on Christmas Day. Five weeks later, I had my first prosthetic leg. To be able to walk again was an amazing feeling.” Despite this, Schultz thought his racing days were over. “I didn’t want to race if I couldn’t compete at the level I did before. I kind of wrote it off. Then I heard about the Adaptive X Games Supercross.”
The problem, Schultz says, was finding the right leg. “I knew of one sport-capable prosthesis, meaning it had a coil-over shock, but it was designed for downhill skiing. The spring rates are too stiff, and the range of motion isn’t anywhere near the 135 degrees needed for snowmobiling.” That’s when Schultz began thinking about alternatives.
“It was funny,” he says. “Everyone’s always known me as the guy who tinkered in the shop. I had lots of friends from the racing community, and they started joking around right away about me building my own knee. That was the catalyst for me.”
Using a sketch pad and cardboard cut-outs, Schultz began designing something completely new. “I had some drafting classes in high school, which is about the extent of my engineering education. But I think mechanically, and I’ve always been a problem-solver, so I just listed what I needed the knee to do, the function of it. It had to absorb shock. It had to bend at least 135 degrees. And it had to be adjustable for different sporting activities.”
Schultz wanted to use a FOX mountain bike shock as the guts of his new prosthesis. “It uses compressed air as the spring mechanism, so you can dial in the right compression and rebound,” he explains. “I took the measurements of that shock and figured out the range of motion. From there I started sketching the knee frame, how it was all going to fit. The toughest part was coming up with a linkage system to give you a progressive feel to the spring rate, but using only a two-inch stroke shock. That was the thing I scratched my head most about.” Within a month, Schultz had a good working drawing, which he brought to a nearby shop. “FOX has a shop here in Baxter, Minnesota,” he says.
“They gave me a quick rundown on how to use the mill and the lathe and turned me loose. I machined the first one. “I remember the feeling when I pulled the parts out of the mill, bolted it all together, and stuck it on my leg,” he says. “I got on a dirt bike that same day, grinning ear to ear. It was an amazing feeling. I could stand up on the bike, balanced, just like I had two good legs. The first time I pinned the throttle, I was the happiest guy in the world. Right there I knew I’d be able to do some pretty cool stuff with this.”
Cool stuff, to be sure. Less than five months after the accident, Schultz and his new knee raced motocross at Michigan’s Extremity Games, qualifying him for the 2009 ESPN Summer X Games Supercross. “Participating in an event like that was a real eye-opener,” says Schultz. “It opened me up to relationships with other amputees, where I could learn stuff from them, and them from me. From that point on, it’s been a whole new world.”
Since then, Schultz has made five revisions to the original design, and now markets his product under the brand name Moto Knee. He’s also started a new company, Biodapt Inc., with the goal of being the leading edge in high-activity prosthetic equipment. “Since January 2011, I’ve sold more than 40 units,” Schultz says. “We have people using them for snowboarding, water skiing, horseback riding, you name it.”
Schultz says his business venture is the most rewarding job anybody could ever have. “It’s truly about helping people,” he says.