He kicked cancer in the butt. He skis down mountains on one leg and scores goals on the soccer field. He’s written a national bestseller. He raps. He’s the champion of Halloween. He created the perfect pick-up line. Also, he once permed his hair with a five-day perm kit — it lasted for nine months. Ok, maybe that last one just proves everyone makes mistakes. But really, any way you look at it, Josh Sundquist ’06 is awesome.
All Josh Sundquist ever wanted was a soccer uniform. A jersey, shorts and knee-high socks. The travel soccer team played on Sundays, right after Sunday school, and he wouldn’t have time to change before the game, so he would have to wear his soccer uniform to church. And that was all right with him.
He wanted to get out of his church clothes, his white-collared shirt and itchy dress pants that his mom made him wear hiked up above his belly button. He wanted to go fast, to beat other kids to the ball, to the goal. And all of that would start with a jersey, shorts and knee-high socks.
He begged his mom to join a team. At first, he got the standard response — “We’ll have to think about it,” which every nine-year-old understands means no. But since Sundquist was homeschooled, he had the advantage of being able to ask his mom again every 15 minutes. Finally, he got the answer he wanted.
And then everything changed.
A LEG LOST
“I will wake up and my leg will be gone. My leg will be gone, but I will still be here. I will survive. I will learn how to run. I will be strong. And I will be fast.”
The week that a 9-year-old Sundquist was supposed to try out for the soccer team, he woke up from a biopsy.
It was Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer that mainly affects children and adolescents. The doctors gave him a 50 percent chance to live.
Sundquist started on chemotherapy, but after a few months, the treatments had done nothing to shrink the tumor in his leg. The doctors told him he could have his femur replaced with a metal rod or with someone else’s bone, but that his leg would be too fragile to play sports. Not only did amputation give Sundquist the best chance of survival, but the surgeon told him that amputees could bike, swim, ski … and even play soccer.
The first two days were full of pain, but on the third day after his amputation, Sundquist was running laps around the children’s wing of the hospital on his crutches, while the physical therapist chased after him, telling him he needed to take it easy.
But “take it easy” was not in Sundquist’s vocabulary. Less than a year later, while at the hospital for chemo, Sundquist saw a flyer for adaptive ski instruction at a nearby resort. The next day, as he rode the lift to the top of the mountain, he saw people falling on the beginner trail below. Sundquist didn’t want to fall. He knew people would think it was because he had one leg and they would feel sorry for him. He decided he couldn’t fall. He wouldn’t. No way.
When Sundquist fell getting off the lift, when he fell trying to make turns, when he fell trying to stop, the more he felt like he was going to throw up, like after chemotherapy. But he continued to pick himself back up each time, until he was able to ski down the mountain without falling.
“The freedom of movement and speed that I experienced on the ski slopes was the opposite of everything being an amputee was,” Sundquist said.
A month after his first lesson, Sundquist competed in a race. He was the only competitor in his category, but afterwards a man approached him. He was a former coach of the United States Paralympic ski team. “I saw you ski today and I want you to know you have great potential.”
Sundquist looked at the man’s jacket, which was red, white and blue, with big patches that spelled USA. “Did you get that jacket at the Paralympics?” Sundquist asked. “If I went to the Paralympics to ski race, do you think I would get a uniform like that?”
CHASING THE FINISH LINE
“What if,” the therapist says, “You did your best and that was enough? You gave 100 percent effort, and even if you didn’t reach 100 percent success, you just accepted it because there’s nothing you can do to change what’s already happened.”
Sundquist thinks, “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
At 16, Sundquist was on a mission. Declared free of cancer at 13, he began to pursue his dream of earning that uniform. After attending a racing camp in Colorado, Sundquist set about convincing his parents to let him move there full time to train. How will you finish high school? Where will you live? How will you pay for it all? They asked endless questions, but Sundquist didn’t care. He wanted a gold medal in the 2006 Paralympics, and that craving was more powerful than any question they could ask. He would find a way.
And he did — everything from convincing a doctor to write a prescription for him so he could work out at a gym underage, to soliciting 600 people for donations, to downing Pro Performance Weight Gainer 2200 Gold. Sundquist graduated high school a semester early and set off for Colorado.
There were times when it was easy. Like when he went to watch the 2002 Paralympic Opening Ceremonies and envisioned himself walking into the stadium four years later. But there were other times when it was just too hard. While with his family in Virginia, Sundquist was kicked off a ride at an amusement park. “Sir, you won’t be able to participate in this experience because you are handicapped.” After all the hard work he’d done, all the training, to show people he was fast and strong and normal, it didn’t matter. After the incident, Sunquist decided to take a break from ski racing and focus on college.
“This is who I am when I arrive at the College of William & Mary: not a ski racer,” Sundquist said. “Instead I’m an unhealed, handicapped 18-year-old, victim of cancer.”
During his sophomore year, Sundquist went to see a therapist for what he called “the grayness.” In one of his sessions, he told his therapist about Johnny, a kid he shared a hospital room with while he was in for chemo treatments, who had died when Sundquist was nine. “How did that make you feel?” the therapist asked. Sundquist told him that he felt Johnny was counting on him to live life to the fullest, to reach his full potential, that he didn’t have time to fail.
“What if you did your best and that was enough?”
Sundquist dismissed the thought at the time, but eventually began to see the Paralympics, not as something that would define him as a success or failure, but as something that would make the grayness go away. He needed a finish line to chase. He returned to Colorado to train and made the 2006 Paralympic team, placing 34th in the Games. And it was enough. Enough that he had made the team. Enough that he had earned that uniform he had been chasing for so long.
But he didn’t chase it alone. Sundquist sent pieces of his uniform to the people who had helped him get there. “Since earning a uniform had always been such an important symbol of athletic achievement for me, it only made sense to pass on that symbol to those who had made that achievement possible.”
Sundquist went on to play for the U.S. National Amputee Soccer Team, finally earning that soccer jersey he had always wanted. And in a way, this one was better.
“I’m not just traveling to the next city,” Sundquist said. “We’re traveling the world. Just one of those times your dreams come true in ways that you never imagined.”
HAPPY HALLOWEEN: Sundquist is famous for his Halloween costumes, which incorporate his missing leg.
Photo by Kevin Allen
WHEN LIFE HANDS YOU LEMONS YOU MAKE HALLOWEEN COSTUMES
“In the morning I wake up 10 seconds after you / ’cause when I put my swag on, I only tie one shoe / And when I do laundry, it totally rocks / Because unlike you, I don’t have to pair my socks.”
Growing up in a home that didn’t celebrate Halloween, Sundquist had never worn a costume until he came to William & Mary, donning a sheet over his head and telling people he was the Holy Ghost.
Compared to the costumes Sundquist creates today, this was ridiculously simple. Now Sundquist goes all out. From a gingerbread man with his leg cut off to a foosball player to a flamingo, Sundquist’s costumes incorporate his missing leg, bringing a humorous light to his disability.
When he first lost his leg, Sundquist was self-conscious about it. He wore his prosthesis all the time and was terrified people would find out he was an amputee. But now, with his Halloween costumes, he celebrates what sets him apart.
“Over the years, I’ve grown more comfortable with the fact that my body is shaped differently than everyone else’s,” Sundquist said. “And I’m at the point now where I’m going to take this thing that makes me different from everyone else and not only am I going to not hide it, I’m going to use it to make something awesome.”
WHEN YOUR GIRLFRIEND HAS A BOYFRIEND THAT ISN’T YOU
“I took a deep breath and unleashed the line that I had been rehearsing all morning. ‘So … we should hang out sometime.’ Boom. I want to pause here and acknowledge how that line may have blown your mind with its sheer awesomeness. If you need to take a break before you keep reading, I’ll understand.”
“Kissing Josh felt like that tingling sensation when you burn your mouth on scalding hot coffee.”
Not something you want to hear from someone you shared your first kiss with. But Sundquist voluntarily went looking for this feedback. All because one day a friend called and told him that Sundquist’s girlfriend had a boyfriend — and it wasn’t Sundquist.
He was 25. As he stood on the sidewalk after the call, he realized that the only relationship he had ever had was in the eighth grade; after he asked her out, she went into the bathroom, cried, and had her friend break up with him through Instant Message 23 hours later.
Frustrated and and curious about his dating failures, Sundquist started an investigation into why he had never had a girlfriend. His research led to We Should Hang Out Sometime, which was released this past January and explores Sundquist’s trial and errors in dating.
“‘We should hang out sometime’ is the perfect pick-up line because it’s not a yes or no question, so it can’t be rejected,” Sundquist said. “It’s merely an opinion statement, and all polite people know it’s rude to disagree with someone else’s opinion.”
Sundquist first dropped the ingenious phrase on a girl in the 11th grade. He took her to a golf course, where, after hitting a great shot, his overzealous celebration led to him falling to the ground. “Something you should know about prosthetic legs is that they come preprogrammed to malfunction at the worst possible moments in your life,” Sundquist said. When he stood up, the foot on his prosthesis was facing the opposite way and he had to smack it against a tree to get it turned back around.
From his adventures with CFD (Close Fast Dancing), to a time at William & Mary when his friend threatened to kick Sundquist with steel-toed boots if he didn’t have a Define The Relationship talk with a girl, the book details the awkward moments we all experience while looking for love.
“We Should Hang Out Sometime is about everything I did wrong in relationships, so I would suggest reading it and doing the opposite of everything I did.”
Sundquist is now engaged. The paperback version of We Should Hang Out Sometime, out in early 2016, will have an extended ending, featuring more stories about his fiancée.
SPEAKING FROM THE HEART
“Thanks to you, I don’t need this anymore.” A girl hands Sundquist a card and walks away. It reads, “Suicide hotline. 24/7 free and confidential.” He wants to call the girl back, to tell her that the hundreds of calls he made to principals, the hours he spent practicing this motivational speech, the fact that he just made a complete fool of himself in a middle school auditorium, that it was all worth it, thanks to her. But she’s gone.
“Hey, Mom,” Sundquist says. “Come check this out. I’m changing the world.”
Sundquist started giving fundraising speeches for his hospital when he was 10. That turned into motivational speeches when he was in high school, and now, it’s how he makes a living.
ONE MORE THING, ONE MORE TIME: Sundquist competed in the 2006 Paralympics in Turino, Italy.
Photo by Ken Watson
He has spoken across the world to groups ranging from Fortune 500 companies to inner-city public schools to the White House. “I like how motivational speaking is an intersection of performing, writing, being self-employed and, hopefully, helping people,” Sundquist said.
There is a story Sundquist likes to tell in his speeches: A few years ago he was talking to a girl about the prosthesis he was wearing — how it works, what it was made out of. “And she looks down at it and she’s like, ‘Is the foot fake, too?’
“The reason I tell these stories, is that the way that I’ve learned to deal with the difficulties of having one leg is by being able to laugh about them,” Sundquist said. “And I’m not going to try to suggest to you that everything bad that happens to you has this hilarious silver lining to it. But what I do want to suggest is that if I can laugh about having one leg, maybe there are some little problems in your life that you can laugh about, as well.”
But Sundquist doesn’t empower people with just his speeches. His memoir, Just Don’t Fall, was a national bestseller, and he has built a YouTube channel with over 200,000 subscribers. He first started using YouTube as a way to promote his speeches, but in 2010, after uploading his “Amputee Rap” which went viral, he saw the influence of it.
“I realized it was powerful for me as a way to share my stories, my inspiration and my sense of humor,” Sundquist said. “There’s nothing more exciting than being able to upload a video that instantly connects with viewers around the world.”
ONE MORE THING, ONE MORE TIME
“When I was training for the Paralympics, I had a motto that I wrote on the tip of my ski. My motto was 1MT, 1MT, which stands for one more thing, one more time. It means doing one more thing than you feel like doing; one more thing than what you planned on doing; one more thing than your competition is willing to do. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is just doing one more thing.”
When he was a year old, Sundquist ate a poisonous plant. At two, he fell down a flight of stairs. When he was six, he climbed up a maple tree in his backyard to the height of a telephone pole and fell 50 feet to the ground. Even before he had cancer, and especially after, Sundquist has continued to do one more thing, one more time.
“I feel like I can get through almost any pain if I know exactly when it’s going to end,” Sundquist said. “But the toughest type of adversity is the kind that lasts forever. There are times for me when I’m not sure I can make it through a lifetime of the physical and psychological side effects of having one leg. And when I feel like that, I say, ok, maybe I can’t make it through a lifetime, but can I at least make it through today? And when I feel like I can’t even make it through today, I say, well, can I at least make it through this moment? And usually I find that the answer is yes.”
It’s not easy being an amputee. But Sundquist manages to find the light. Marathon runners have written “1MT, 1MT” on their shoes and salespeople have written it on post-it notes on their desks. Sundquist knows that telling others about his experiences makes a difference.
“If these stories can connect with readers and perhaps impact them in some way, that in my mind transforms the painful experiences to something quite meaningful,” Sundquist said. “The common denominator of my professional activities — motivational speaking, writing books and making YouTube videos — is storytelling. I hope I am sharing stories that add a layer of meaning to the lives of those who are listening.”