Josh Sundquist - Cancer Survivor and Paralympian

Introduction:

Welcome to Beyond Speaking with Brian Lord, a podcast featuring deeper conversations with the world's top speakers.

Brian Lord:

Hi, I'm Brian Lord, and on the show today, we have Paralympic ski racer author and cancer survivor, Josh Sundquist, as he shares his philosophy behind "one more thing, one more time," his first time out in public after amputation surgery. And of course his internet-famous Halloween costumes. This week we hit the slopes of life with Josh Sundquist. So I started by asking Josh about his first time back in sports after his amputation.

Josh Sundquist:

So, before I lost my leg, when I was a child, I played soccer with my friends in the backyard a lot. And then I was diagnosed with cancer and I was nine years old at a 50% chance to live. I was on chemotherapy for a few months, but it didn't get rid of the tumor. And so my leg was amputated. This was a month before my 10th birthday. And I realized at that point while I'm probably I'm, I'm not going to be a soccer player anymore, as it turns out spoiler, I am a soccer player today, 20 years later, but there wasn't really a sport called amputee soccer then, but there is now, which is an amazing thing that's happened. But that time I was like, wow, you know, what sports can I play? And the first opportunity that I had to, to play any sport was actually my church's annual summer softball game. Like we had this sort of retreat every summer and there'd be like this big softball game. And it's, it's unclear to me like who the teams were like. I think it was like kind of our church versus like random people that were at the campground or something. But I had played in it as a, as a person with two legs and I convinced my parents to like, let me go to, it was at Lost River State Park, which was a big deal. Cause I mean, it was literally 16 days after I'd lost my leg. I mean, it's, it's as you can imagine, it's a very traumatic surgery to have just physically and because it was just like, I couldn't, I was still on chemotherapy. I didn't have hair because I was on chemo. I had to get shots every day. So they had to arrange for a doctor friend from our church to give me the shots while I was there. But it was a, it was an important thing, I think for me to be able to take that step so to speak and and, and to do it in a friendly environment. So all of that's the sort of precursor to say then, you know, I, I decided like I would go up to bat, like I would, I would try to play the game like I had before. And when it was my turn to go up to bat, I set my crutches down. I, I, at that time I had a pair of underarm crutches, and I hopped over to home plate. But I didn't have any balance cause it just happened. And you're resetting your balance after you lose a leg was really significant because the leg is almost 20% of your body weight. And so your center of gravity is very different. So to be able to balance, then I had to use the bat. The bat was kind of my cane, right? So I was trying to hold the bat and be ready also to swing. But just to give you the full picture, like I said, no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes. I always wore a backward baseball cap during that whole year that I was on chemotherapy. But a cool thing was because this was my church there that some of the boys there had been part of this group, who three months before, when I was diagnosed and, and found that I was going to lose my hair. And I was really devastated about that. 18 of my friends, including my brother, a bunch of boys from my homeschool group and a bunch of boys from church, 18 of them came over to my house and they had this head-shaving party in the backyard, all shaved their heads, which was it was, you know, amazing, right. It was so cool to, to be able to have friends like that. You know, who would, who would give you that signal that you're not the only one, right? That I, I didn't have to be the only nine-year-old who didn't have hair. So a lot of those boys were there at that game. And, and this was the first time that they'd seen me since I'd lost my leg. And it, you know, it was really important to me that they, they see me and say, "Yeah, Josh looks a lot different than he used to. He has one leg. This is, is this like very you know, visually different, but, but he's still the same guy that we've always hung out with that we played soccer with, that we go to church with and we go to homeschool group with." So that's all the context. And I, the first pitch came from, from Pastor Smule at the pitcher's mound, I'm trying to simultaneously let go of the bat, but like pick it up and then stand and be on one leg and swing and hit the ball. But of course, I swung and I missed and I had just no sense of balance. And so, you know, I lost control of the bat, the bat went flying, I, you know, spun around from that force of the swing. And I, then I fell of course in and I feel, I don't know what it is about, I guess, all baseball and softball and fields have that, you know, that dusty dirt, right, that forms this cloud-

Brian Lord:

-Yeah. Very Charlie Brown. Yeah.

Josh Sundquist:

When you fall in it. But yeah, I feel- like very cinematic. Yeah, very dramatic than that, that I had to, to like brush off the dirt, like physically to come back for the second pitch. And I picked up the bat and then I hopped back over to home plate. And I mentioned that a lot of my friends were there, but my dad was there too. He had driven me to, to Lost River and he was watching from behind this chain-link fence kind of in front of the first, first base dugout. And so, you know, I knew, I knew it, you know, like I said, I wanted my friends to see it. And I wanted my dad to see me succeed in this too. And you know, it's interesting now as an adult, I don't have children yet, but only a try to imagine. And I feel that I failed to imagine what it would feel like for my dad in that moment, or just from my parents over that year. I think in a lot of ways, it was harder for them than for me, I think just to, to see your child suffer and to be really, truly unable to do anything, to alleviate that, you know, I can, like so many times my parents told me "Joshua, I wish they could take my leg instead." So many times over that year. And I, I look at that now and I think, wow, you know, they had to be strong for like, I, I would cry, but like, they didn't cry, but I know they were crying in private all the time. But in front of me, they felt like we need to be the strong ones for our son in this moment. So the second pitch came, same thing. I swung, I missed the bat, went flying. I got the bat. I came back over for, for the third pitch. And at this point, my dad like all parents for all time, I feel like it was like, keep your eye on the ball. Right. And you're a sophisticated coach. So, you know, but, but for other parents, like they don't know anything. I'm pretty sure about baseball and softball, but they're like, I know this, this is, this is the thing I know that will solve all of the child's problems. They keep their eye on the ball. Just what, which is also, it's also just a weird, like, why not both eyes? Why not? Why not binocular vision? Like that seems very- nope. Just one eye. That's all you need. Keep it on the ball. So my dad said that, and I was like, "Oh, I can do that." Right. And the third pitch came and I swung and I missed, I knew about baseball. I played literally again. So I had assumed three strikes. I was out to me as an adult now, or two to any adult listening. So obvious, but that, that no, no adult at this game, even if they were from the other team, even if they were like a competing church or whatever, no adult is ever going to be like, "Hey, like, yeah, wait, wait, wait. Like that boy I've been, I've been tracking, I've been tracking all the stats and yeah. I know 50% chance to live. I know he lost his leg 15 days ago. 16 days ago. Like no, Todd, competition is everything. There are winners and losers!" We're like, nobody's going to- right? Because it's, it's the opposite. Right. They're going to be like, please just keep swinging. Like we don't care. We'll quit our jobs. We'll move to this baseball field. We'll stay here all summer. That's just, please don't break our hearts. So, but yeah, I just didn't, I didn't understand. I just thought like, wow, I guess these people just cause they were like, no, no, just keep going. I was like, I guess they don't just don't know the rules. Like how lucky is this for me? Well, I just get extra strikes for some reason. So I was like, all right. Yeah. I'll, I'll just keep swinging. So I did, so I got it, another strike and another and another, I think it was around seven strikes. I, I felt you know, that, that sort of breath that you get that tells you you're going to cry. And I, you know, my parents had seen me cry, of course. And I cried in private a lot over that year, but I never let anyone outside our family see me cry. I never especially let my friends see me cry. So I dropped the bat and I hopped over and I picked up my crutches and I started to walk off the field just to, I was just like, I'll just go be by myself. Like, I don't want anyone to see this. And at that point, you know, my dad he called out to me from behind that, that chain link fence. And I think, you know, again, like what a, what an interesting moment for my dad, my dad said, Josh- my parents always called me Joshua still to this day. They're the only people in the world that call me Joshua and my brother, Matt, they call him Matthew. So my dad was like, "Joshua. You almost had that last one." I stopped. I looked at him and, and he, he put two fingers, like kind of threw one of the holes in that chain link fence. And he said, "It was this close." And my, you know, my dad was and is, you know, he's my hero. And I knew that if he was up, he would keep swinging, you know, until he got a hit. And I knew that's what I had to do. And I would say that, like, that was the moment when I knew how many swings I was willing to take, which was as many swings as I needed to do. So I came back over and I set my crutches down and I just said, yeah, I'll just, this is I'm in, I'm in it. I'm going to keep swinging until I get a hit, you know, in, in baseball or softball, you get either three strikes or four strikes, depending on what league you happen to be playing in. But, but in, in the vast majority of situations in life, especially professionally, you know, there's, there's, there's not like three strikes and you're out rule it's, it's like really how many strikes do you want to take? Like, if you're a salesperson, how many nos are you willing to take? How many calls are you willing to, to make how many failures at this or that? Or are you like, it's, it's really up to you. So it's kind of a question of, are you the person who are you a kind of person who can be struck out? Do you have that sort of like three, three times, four times you're done? Or are you the kind of person who says, no, this is the thing that's going to happen. I'm going to make the hit is not a question about that. It's just a question of how many strikes, but it doesn't matter how many, because I'm going to keep swinging. So that's, that's the mentality I had then. And I got another strike and another second, another strike. I just just actually about two months ago, my mom was going through old documents and she found a journal, like a sort of journal that this guy who went to our church had written, he had photos of me from that game.

Brian Lord:

Wow.

Josh Sundquist:

I had never seen a photo before this photo of me on this field. I was so skinny. I weighed like 58 pounds and no hair, of course. And he had written this account of it, which was really interesting because like I said, I've been telling this story for so long and, and to read someone else's perspective of it and to think, to think of what that, what that moment must have looked like for anyone else who was there, who knew my story. But the interesting thing was that, that he said it took over 20 pitches, 20 pitches that it just kept swinging. And I just imagined what it must've been like for my dad or for that guy or for people in other teams that didn't know me, just thinking, I hope he keeps swinging. I hope he could, but I, but I, maybe he won't cause this is a lot of pitches. And I remember in fact, this, this moment where, because there was on the other team, there was adults, but there are also children. And who might be sort of like less sensitive to my situation. And the more I swung, I remember that there was a shortstop, a kid about my age who kind of kept coming like closer and closer. You know, you've got that idea. You've seen it in church league where you realize, "Oh, like, if this dude gets a hit, it's not going far and I'm going to be ready to field it." And I just, but I remember how stung, like that idea that even if I even, I got the hit this kid, my peer had judged it's it's not going anywhere. And I can, I can be like halfway between the pitchers mound and the shortstop. Yeah. Right. Well, yeah. The other people can't leave the base. Yeah. so yeah, so he, he he stayed there and finally, yeah, finally I did, I did get a, hit, it bounced off the bat and, and the shortstop was- to his credit. It was very slow, but it was like, even slower than the shortstop, because it rules just, just barely moving. And fortunately, I, cause I knew, I, you know, I can't, I can't like hold crutches and a bat simultaneously. So I'd had this, this friend of mine named Tim who was going to be my designated runner. So he had been ready this whole time, just sitting there. Yeah. I haven't really thought about it. I don't know what he was thinking of the whole time. He's just like ready to switch positions. So finally I got the hit, Tim took off and by the time it reached the shortstop, like Tim was already on first base and I had my base hit. In fact, then I swapped out and I got my crutches and I actually went over and Tim walked off and I ran the rest of the basis. And that photo, that the guy from my church had given my mom and I just saw for the first time, a couple months ago, I was actually, there was enough base sets that I rounded the bases. And the picture is of me running all my crutches, 16 days after the amputation, across home plate, the caption Josh coming home. And I look at that story and it is well, it's not just, you know, it is just on surface. Of course, it's a story about how I got a base hit, but, but, but really I think the important thing to me, looking back on it and in sharing that story is that it's not just me getting a base hit. It is this team effort that happened. Right. It was, it was, it was all of these people coming together and the roles they played, right. It was my dad. Right, right. Like I said, who, he was able to keep me in the game. Right. And I think that on every team, like there needs to be that person, like, can you be that person who can keep people in the game? Number two, there, there was my, we can say really anyone on the other team, but I would say fundamentally, also my pastor, who would, by definition, it's sort of the arbiter of any issue, true softball game. He sees the umpire also the dispenser of, of rules. And fortunately that day decided to play by grace as a good Calvinist. And but, but, but you know, what's interesting, right? Because we've all dealt with those people who are like, hiding behind the rules. They're like, "Nope, it's, this is what the rule is. Like, I'm like, I'm throwing these policies at you." Instead of knowing what is actually the good thing to do, or even the right thing to do. They're just like, not really, I just don't feel like throwing the ball more. You know, but my pastor fortunately, was able to say, you know, what, the right thing in this situation is to keep throwing the ball right. Is to, is to give some extra grace or leeway to this person, because that's what he needs. And I'm willing to offer that. And every team needs that kind of person, that kind of leader. And finally, then there was my friend, Tim, who, who ran for me and, you know, I think it's easy. You know, of course we always want like credit for our jobs, but but it's, it is hard to be that person. It is hard to, to run for someone else when they can't like, we all want to say that we would, but like really like in a professional sense to like, do someone else's work for them to help them, because for whatever reason, they can't and potentially not even to take credit, like that's hard, but like a great team has those sorts of people on the team. So for me, it is it is really then a story about teamwork and how that that team, by which, I mean, not just the people who are literally playing on my team, everybody who was there that day, like came together and gave me this moment of feeling like, yeah, I have one leg. I look really different now. I probably, I'm not physically able to do quite what I used to, but I can still play softball. I can still play sports. And it was soon after that, that I learned how to ski. And then years after that, I started ski racing. And then years after that, I went to the Paralympics and became a Paralympian. But I think it really started in, in that moment on that softball field.

Brian Lord:

I know you've already mentioned your dad is a mentor to you. Who are some of your other mentors that affected you either before that, or after that?

Josh Sundquist:

Yeah, that's a good question. I think my, yeah, certainly my parents were, were the biggest influence on my life. You know, I, I recognize like I've had an amazing outcome sort of health-wise from having cancer at a young age and being on chemotherapy for a year and losing my leg to be able to come out on the other side of that and to be able to be an athlete and just to even be like a functioning, human being and to be able to like, have a job and to be married to a beautiful wife, like all of those things, those are not givens when you're, when you have that sort of childhood trauma. And, you know, I wish I knew exactly how to like bottle that and give it to people. And of course, as a speaker, I try to, to the extent that I can, just in a sense of sharing the narrative and hopefully people recognize something in those stories that is also in themselves, but I don't, I, I don't know exactly like what is the exact step or formula for people, but I know that for me as a nine-year-old who had been homeschooled up until that point, certainly any good traits that, that I had were from my parents, you know, like they were the people who had been influencing me, like nothing, no one else even came close, you know? And so I think it was fortunate that they had been instilling that sort of character in me up to that moment, which, which I would say then they learned from their parents. And like my, my grandfather who was alive at that time was also was a great athlete. He was a bodybuilder competitively, the most legendary story in our family is that he when he was a young man was wanting to teach himself discipline. And so he would go out like into the forest, take his shirt off, pour honey on his chest. I just sit there and try to like, have patience as bugs crawling on him to eat the honey about like, it's like, that's the kind of stuff my grandfather did. [Laughing].

Brian Lord:

Wow.

Josh Sundquist:

Yeah. So so like we grew up with, with him as an example, too. So as you can imagine, he was, he was pretty tough and he, the kind of guy that would keep swinging.

Brian Lord:

Doing your job that you do of speaking, what are the things that resonated the most with people that they come out afterward? And they say, "I took away this one thing," what do you hear the most?

Josh Sundquist:

I became a ski racer. Like I said, years later when I was 16, it was when I first started racing and I wanted to go to the Paralympics. That was like, that was my goal. And in fact there was going to the next Paralympics where it happened when I was 21, in Italy. And when I started racing, I was like, I was really bad actually. Like I had these grand ideas about how awesome I was going to be like, even my first race, I honestly was convinced I was going to win my first race. I was like, yeah, I'm going to win. It's amazing. That's how great I am. Which was so delusional. And actually like I fell five times and I was last place by far, but, but I did keep getting back up. Right. And that is like that lesson that my dad taught me. And I am proud that I finished that race, even though I was last place by far. And then I started sort of competing nationally and internationally, and I was still bad. Like my I was always either like the last place or second to last place and my first eight world cup races. And so it didn't, it didn't seem necessarily likely that I was going to make the team. In fact, my, my coach, like the dude that I was paying to coach, or sort of encouraging me, sat me down. And he was like, "Hey, I know you're training for 2006. But really you should ask for 2010, because you have no chance, no chance to make 2006." And this one, I was 19. I was still kind of precocious. Like I wasn't, when I was 16, I was like, really like, I mean, statistically, no chance at all. It was like conceded. He was like, I mean, right. Maybe one in a million. And I, at that point had seen the movie Dumb and Dumber. "And So you're saying there's a chance," like, "I got you. I knew there was a chance." And honestly, I didn't, I certainly disagree with his assessment of my odds. I knew I like, I could see the scores of, you know, the times of the races. I wasn't, I wasn't like a top contender, but I, I thought like if I thought, well, there has, first of all, you have to believe that there's some chance if there's not, why even try. Right. Yeah. And even if there's a small chance for me at that time, I felt like I want to look back and feel like I did everything that I could, you know, like if I, if I didn't make the Paralympic team, when I were 10 years or 20 years from the, from then I could look back and say, Hey, at least there was no regrets. Like there was nothing else I could have done. And around that time I adopted this ski racing motto called which I, I actually abbreviated it and wrote in Sharpie markers on the tips of all my skis, which was 1MT1MT, which stands for one more thing one more time. And that was my philosophy as a racer. It was always, can I do one more run through the course? Is there one more thing I could learn about the sport? Is there one more rep or one more workout that I could do after I got off the mountain that day, and that I would say is that, you know, I, one time I was speaking and I've been speaking for many years at this point, but, and I just happened to mention offhandedly that, that one more thing one more time. And, and I, so many people afterward came up to me like, "What was that thing again?"Like, what was I going to write it down? Like one more thing." And I was like, "Hmm, like, wow. And it never occurred to me that maybe it's not just a ski racing motto." I had always thought like, yeah, that's just what you do to be a great ski racer, but oh, like, this is just, this is like a life motto. Like this is for any finish line that you want to cross. Right. and, and so, yeah, I would say now in my speeches is I always, I always fundamentally like that is the, that is the key theme is one more thing, one more time. And then helping people think through, what is that thing for you in your job?

Brian Lord:

Now, one of the other things too, outside of speaking that you're most famous for are your amazing Halloween costumes. So tell us about those and where did the idea come from? Was that your idea?

Josh Sundquist:

Yeah, well I-

Brian Lord:

I'm looking at his wife who is sitting-

Josh Sundquist:

Who is integral to the start of these costumes. Yeah. So first I should say, my family did not celebrate Halloween growing up being that we're a very conservative household. And it's funny now that these Halloween costumes have become sort of a really part of my life and career. And now my parents are always like, "What are you going to dress up [as]?" Like, don't pretend you guys didn't make us like, hide in the middle of the house and turn off all the lights, lock the doors on Halloween because we didn't want any trick-or-treaters [Laughing]. Uh but I, yeah, so I, I mean, I didn't dress as anything until I was like in college and just did some moral costumes for a few years. And then in 2010, I dressed as a partially eaten gingerbread man. I got, it was a really simple costume. Actually. I just bought the Shrek gingerbread man costume. And literally just cut the leg off the left leg in like with bite marks, which is the key detail. Right. So it doesn't look like just a broken costume. It's like, this was on purpose. And I would just wore that out to like some Halloween parties that night and people thought it was so funny and, or they were like, "That's an amazing costume. Where'd you hide your leg? Like how, what are the mechanics here?" And I'm like, I'm walking with these kinds of like, of these custom one-piece titanium crutches. They cost like a thousand dollars. Like, how do you think I own these look, I got this Dirty Dollar costume, but also thousand dollar crutches to go along with it? Uh but it's just funny that people don't necessarily always assume. And I've found that with other costumes too, that I've done since then, which are always something that hopefully has like an illusion to it. But it's often people's first reaction is not like, oh, as an amputee. It's like, how, where is he hiding his leg in this costume? And anyway, to answer your question, then I started dating my a little while after that costume. And two years later in 2012, she suggested that I dress as a, the leg lamp from A Christmas Story, which I, and I just, I just loved that idea.  and again, I had never seen actually the movie, a Christmas Story.  but I knew what I knew. It was funny. Cause yeah, cause then, that I, a picture of that became very popular on the internet and all the comments where people were like "frag-ee-lay" or "it's a major award." All the, I was like, I don't know. Why do people keep misspelling fragile? I don't understand why is that? Why is nobody know how to spell fragile on the internet? So finally I watched the movie and understood yeah, so those that after that, I was like, wow, like what an interesting thing that this clearly delights so many people online. And  I was like, so yeah, like if I can keep thinking of ideas, I'll keep doing this. And I have, so yeah, ever, ever since it's just a new, a new costume every year and it's in a podcast format, it's difficult for me to like describe the costumes to people.  cause they don't necessarily look quite the way that you would imagine.

Brian Lord:

And just, I like, even just like I-HOP sign, like just, there are so many levels that, that works on.

Josh Sundquist:

And that, you know, it's funny, you bring up the, I-HOP sign. Because like that one more than any costume had done, people will be like, "I don't get it." They'll be like, "I love your costumes, but I don't get the I-HOP one." I'm like, "What do you mean? What's not to get? There's so many things to get." Like, it's also, like you said, some of the like, like it's, it's in the name: I literally hop. Number two, I'm where I'm physically dressed as a sign.

Brian Lord:

It's just a rectangular sign on a, on a pole.

Josh Sundquist:

Right. And like, my leg is the pole. It's just an interesting visual guide. And number three, like, you know, I have like a video and a GIF of it and I'm, I'm literally hopping like all these things. Don't you see how that's...? I don't know. People are like, no, just I don't like, and then when I explain it, they're like, "Oh yeah. Okay." Like how did, how was that not so clear to you? I don't know. But yeah, everybody has a different sort of senses of humor, which is an interesting thing that people would tell me, like, "I love this costume, but yeah, I don't like that one. I don't get that one" or whatever, but that's kind of the fun of it is seeing like what, what people connect to or what elements of which costumes or which characters, cause they've dressed as several characters that, that they sort of relate to.

Brian Lord:

So definitely if you're, if you're listening to this, go to premierspeakers.com and on the blog and we'll have that up with Josh, but well Josh, thank you so much for coming on. I love the stories. I love softball and you know, one more thing one more time and just thank you for sharing your story with so many people and inspiring so many people.

Josh Sundquist:

And my pleasure and thanks for giving me the opportunity to share it with many audiences.

Beyond Speaking is hosted by Brian Lord and produced by Eric Woodie

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Solemate Video Goes Viral (Again)
Every year or so it seems the internet re-discovers a video I made back in 2011 with my solemate Stephen.This year's re-discovery happened yesterday when a GIF of the clip hit the front page of Reddit, amassing an astonishing 7.6M views and 122k upvotes.Here it is--for you to either re-discover or discover for the first time--for yourself: via G...
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I did standup in an earthquake
On July 5th, California's biggest earthquake in 20 years hit--right in the middle of my one-man comedy show. Fortunately for you, the cameras were rolling. Check it out: By the way, you should come to the show sometime! Usually there are no earthquakes. As it happens, there was a theater critic from Stage and Cinema in the audience ...
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COVER STORY!
My one man comedy show "We Should Hang Out Sometime" made the cover of this local Santa Monica newspaper! (Read it) The story published the same day as the one-year anniversary of the show AND the same day the biggest earthquake in 20 years hit during the middle of my performance. What. A. Day.
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