By Maximilian Moore
Decked out in Olympic Team Canada gear, snowboard in one hand and helmet in the other, John Leslie, the Sochi 2014 Paralympic athlete who lost his knee to bone cancer, sits alone in Algonquin’s Student Commons, thinking.
And without knowing it, dozens of students are passing the 21-year-old Algonquin student in the business management and entrepreneurship program who placed seventh in the world for para-snowboard cross, an event meant for those with disabilities, in Sochi, Russia, just a week before.
After 30 hours in transit, from Kelowna to Vancouver to Toronto to Istanbul to Sochi, Leslie arrived for the first time ever, and certainly not the last, at a winter Olympics.
“The volunteers there have bad reputations for being uncool, but no way man. They were pumped,” said Leslie. “They were like cheering after we got through security and the airport had all these cool Olympic-themed lights and we got on a coach bus that had Sochi written on it. So cool.”
Leslie said he’s always been a potential 2018 Paralympian, but after competing at the Canadian team training base in Big White, B.C. and winning a bronze medal, finishing as the top Canadian, he got nominated for the 2014 Canadian Paralympic team.
“I was pretty drunk that night,” said Leslie, proud of his achievement on Canadian soil.
Within two weeks, Leslie won three bronze medals for the IPC World Cup, two at Copper Mountain, Colo.
Three years of training in Whistler, B.C. created that 2018 Paralympian prospect, but something clicked when 2014 was in the cards.
“Testosterone,” he quipped, the thrill of nailing that medal.
For the past six months, Leslie’s been going “hard.” He’s clocked in a solid 15 hours a week in the gym, and 30 hours a week on the hill.
But before all of this, before any of the cheering, international fame, and an “overwhelming” John Leslie Day in Arnprior, Ont., his hometown, there was a 10-year-old boy under extremely unfortunate circumstances, and at the time, a seemingly grim future.
Leslie was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, also known as bone cancer, in his left knee at the age of 10.
“It’s better to have two joints than one, and most people don’t usually do this because of how it looks, but they flipped my foot and attached it to where my knee was,” said Leslie, recalling his amputation at the age of 11. “So this is it, this is the difference between sitting and standing.”
It’s not so flexible, and people tend to stare, according to Leslie, but he can still wiggle his toes. “It’s pretty cool.”
Leslie’s been cancer-free since then, and on the topic of children and adults who go through cancer, his opinion was profound.
“You see people get left behind, they get lost and outside of the swing of things, and they’re kind of just gone for a year,” Leslie said. “When I came back my friends embraced me and included me in everything, it didn’t matter if I was in a wheelchair or crutches. It helped me look at the world positively.”
Fast forward 10 years later, in Sochi, on the night before the race on March 14, Leslie barely got a wink of sleep. That morning, his entire psyche took a 180 degree turn.
“How did I want to remember that day, 10 years from now?” he asked himself. “No. No stress, I want to be having fun.”
On his first run, he went down with a smile on his face, the best run in his event at the time.
Snowboarding started for him seven years ago, but for four years he competed with able-bodied athletes from his high school in the Arnprior area.
“We won most of our events,” he said.
After receiving an email claiming that para-snowboard cross has been selected as an official sport for the winter games, Leslie made the choice to switch from full-time student at Algonquin to full-time training in Whistler.
Moments before meeting with the Times, Leslie was snowboarding at Camp Fortune. The thrill of the hill never dies in someone truly devoted to the sport.
John Leslie Day was held in Arnprior on Feb. 16, and at first, Leslie was skeptical. A whole day for him in his home town seemed like a lot to a kid who used to go to high school and work at Home Hardware.
“I’m just the same old regular kid,” he said.