Jim Wazny has a leg up on his co-workers, and he doesn't mind the pun.
Wazny, the Winter X 2010 SnoCross Adaptive silver medalist (and two-time X Games Super X Adaptive athlete), is an amputee prosthetic technician, and he knows how to handle the guff clients dish out.
"I'll go in wearing a suit, start talking and they'll say, 'What do you know? You have both of your legs,' and they don't want to listen to me," he says. It's at that point Wazny pulls up his left pant leg to reveal his own hardware. "Their eyes get big and they definitely start showing interest in what I'm saying. Being an amputee talking to them has a lot more effect than an able-bodied doctor or another prosthetist telling them what they can and can't do."
The Merrill, MI, native works for Wright & Filippis, a Michigan-based medical supply company that specializes in, among other things, prosthetics. He has something in common with its founder, Anthony Filippis, also an amputee.
Wazny, 40, lost his left leg above the knee in a freak motocross accident in 2000, when he took a blind jump and crashed into track-grooming equipment. In the aftermath of the accident, he made a career segue from a certified automotive mechanic to a certified prosthetics technician, a designation he earned in 2010.
"It seemed like every Monday I was calling in sick to work to see my prosthetist to get the leg parts fixed that I destroyed on the weekend," he says. "It became a running joke that I was there more than the regular employees." And, in 2004, he got on the payroll.
He found several transferrable skills between careers: hydraulics, mechanical, fabrication. "It was a good transition," he says.
Wazny is a part of the company's outreach program, called AmpuTeam, which is meant to inspire new amputees to continue with physical pursuits. "I let them know what's possible," he says, and that ranges from teaching them to walk without a cane on up to running, golfing or other athletics. He practices what he preaches: in addition to snocross, Wazny still competes in motocross and enjoys snowboarding, hiking and mountain biking.
"I love helping people, watching them walk for the first time or motivating them to get back to living life," he says. "It's very rewarding."
He also reached out to the guy who is his biggest Winter X competitor: 2010 SnoCross Adaptive gold medalist Mike Schultz, who lost his leg after a December 2008 snocross accident.
"I wasn't too pushy," Wazny says, explaining that he wanted to be respectful of Schultz' emotional healing process. But Wazny did speak with Schultz' wife and his former teammates who were at the 2009 Winter X Games. Soon after WX '09, Wazny got a call from Schultz.
"We became pretty good friends shortly after, and I can now say that we're very good friends," Wazny says. "I think it opened the door to him knowing that he wasn't going to shut down."
Perhaps his biggest challenge is educating able-bodied athletes. "Even other racers will walk up to you like they want to ask a question, but then they'll keep walking because they seem embarrassed to ask," Wazny says. "I wish they'd just ask. I'm not anything special. I think each and every one of them would be in my same shoes and just do this. The competitive spirit is alive and you'll do whatever it takes to find your happiness."
There are no questions that make him cringe, he adds. "I'll talk about the accident, how my leg is held on, what modifications I make to the sled...I'm an open book," he says.
"I don't believe I would be where I am today if I hadn't lost my leg," Wazny concludes. "It was a blessing in disguise. If I'm able to help one person by inspiring them to achieve their goals, all the hard work that I put in is worth it."