It’s hard not to be impressed by those individuals that are able to make a challenging, dangerous activity look easy. Vasu Sojitra is certainly one of those people.
Not only does Sojitra have the knack of making downhill skiing look simple, he’s able to do so with just the use of one leg and some specially-adapted ski poles.
Born in the US prior to moving to India for some years, Sojitra lost his right leg to a blood infection at the tender age of nine months. Rather than letting it slow him down, it appears he has taken the situation as a challenge to be overcome; at first in simply being able to keep up with his peers and later in excelling as an athlete.
Now Sojitra is the subject of an acclaimed adventure documentary from T-Bar Films’ Tyler Wilkinson-Ray, entitled Out on a Limb. Naturally, the film documents Sojitra’s own personal challenges and aspirations, but in doing so it serves to teach us all something about rising above our perceived limitations.
Wild recently interviewed Sojitra to hear more about his story.
You’ve been described as an “adaptive athlete”. What does that entail?
I guess you can call me an “adaptive athlete”, but I don’t look at myself as anything other than an athlete in general. Yeah, I have used adaptations to help me enjoy the sports that I’m involved in, but who doesn’t in some way? I guess that I and the public have unconditionally put me under the category of an adaptive athlete because of the different challenges that I’ve overcome, but it really isn’t that different than the next athlete. Someone might have minor challenges that limit them from performing some activities, just like me. So all in all sure I can be categorised under an adaptive athlete, but why not just be fulling exclusive and just be ranked amount the rest?
How did the loss of your leg impact your early life?
The loss of my leg definitely brought about a different childhood experience then the main stream kids’. A large part of my childhood, from the age of two to seven years old, my family and I lived in Gujarat, India. That was truly different than anything I experienced in the States afterwards.
India is still a ‘third world country’, but it is becoming more developed and modern so there’s not many community health or social work organisations there to help people that do have disabilities. As a result, my early years were spent trying to fit in alongside the mainstream groups of kids, and that was of course hard to adapt to.
To tell you the truth, I did not really have many friends, but my brother, Amir, was one person I could always rely on for being there for me. While my peers would often exclude me, Amir would just shrug that off and pull me into whatever he was doing. That really helped with the whole confidence and insecurity issue.
A similar situation occurred in the States once we moved here. I would always stick with Amir to be included, and do everything he would do, so in a way I was building confidence in being physically active but not as much emotionally active.
Overall it was more of an emotional roadblock to figure out how to be included in modern society. That is what I believe is the hardest part of being ‘different’.
What led you to becoming an outdoor athlete?
I owe a lot to my personal support group in helping me push myself and become an athlete. Without my friends and family, I would not have the emotional and physical confidence to do what I do today. They have always treated me equally, even forgetting that I have just one leg.
With this support I was able to become more active and have a more peaceful state of mind, driving me to experience life to the fullest; experiencing things like finally being able to keep up with my friends on the hill, or the feelings that come with personal confidence to live an independent lifestyle, as well as a means of therapy in times of sorrow.
What is it that you enjoy about these kinds of challenges?
Challenges are fun! They help me find the true me. It’s the time that you feel suffering, whether it’d be by choice or not, is when you know your true self. Because of that mentality, it once again helps empower and built confidence. Once you have the ability to overcome that challenge, you feel euphoric and weightless. That’s what I love most about encountering a challenge.
Can you tell us about some of your biggest achievements?
Yeah I can, but it’s not climbing the tallest mountain or skiing the gnarliest line – well, maybe in a metaphorical sense. I feel my biggest achievement has been letting go of all the insecurities of having this so-called disability and truly making a life for myself around that. For me that is kind of like skiing the gnarliest line.
Have you faced any particularly challenging or dangerous situations that you’re happy to share with us?
Oh for sure! I’ve definitely had some ‘pucker factor’ moments while skiing and climbing. That’s the best part!
The most vivid memory was the first no-fall zone line that I skied, which was in the Chic Chocs, Quebec. I was sitting up top looking over this rocky roller, which went into a decently technical line. I’d scoped it out beforehand because I couldn’t see it from the top. I hung out there for about 15 minutes for my friends to meet up with me, trying not to get into my own head about how crazy I am. (By the way, prior to getting to the top, we had skinned in about 7 miles just to the base. All flat, but still a long day.) Anyways, when I finally took the first turns, I knew what I had to do and I could not have skied it any better. It was an eye opening experience and it hooked me in. Now I’m more keen to find lines that test my limits and scare the crap out of my parents.
Are there any outdoor activities you haven’t yet participated in and what is next on your list?
Oh there are plenty of activities that I haven’t participated in, not due to my ability, but because I have too many toys and hobbies that I’m currently interested in.
Next on my list is to get more into ski mountaineering and trad climbing, both of which are pretty technical sports. That’s the fun of it. After that I would love to traverse the Wapta Icefields in Banff National Park, Canada, which is full of glacier crossings and technical pitches. The plan was to do it this spring, but life happened and we had to postpone it to next year.
Has your time in the mountains deepened your appreciation for nature?
My time in the mountains has definitely deepened my appreciation for nature! It has made me more aware of what needs to be done to conserve the beauty that’s out there as well as a great way to get educated. I believe it’s very important to help conserve what is around us or else it will bite back.
People are slowly starting to realised the full importance of our environment and advocating concepts like climate change. I’m very grateful to have the ability to spend time in beautiful places and experience the effects first hand. You can’t do that by just sitting behind a desk. Life is about personal experiences when it comes to truly becoming educated, especially on your surroundings.
You recently featured in a documentary about your life and achievements. What was that experience like?
The experience with this documentary was very eye-opening. It’s also opened doors that I never would have expected. I’ve gotten to see what the ski community is like as well as the adaptive sports community. Both are similar in some ways, but extremely different in others.
The film has also become it’s own entity. What I mean by this is that the story of me pushing the limits of skiing on one leg became something bigger, especially for someone who had hit a crossroad in their life. It helped open other peoples’ eyes to what is possible. That was a very empowering feeling, personally and generally.
What do you hope the documentary achieves?
At first we never expected to make it as far it has, but now that it’s showing world wide I hope to help people redefine the word disability and spread awareness to the community. On top of that, I want to also show the world that people with disability are always people first, just like you and me. It’s been an amazing way to spread awareness about disabilities as well as the broader picture of human rights.
From personal experience, I know that having one leg has not hindered my ability to do what love. I strongly believe that everyone has the potential to develop that emotional strength. Those are some ideas I hope that people are able to reflect on after watching the film.
Have you visited Australia before? What outdoor activity would you most want to try here?
I have not visited Australia before, but I would love to. I’m a huge fan of traveling and experiencing new cultures. If and when I do go, I would love to go diving. Heard it’s gorgeous! One day.
Out on a Limb is currently touring as part of the Winter Wildlands Alliance’s Backcountry Film Festival, which will screen at RMIT in Melbourne on May 21.