The Extreme Athlete Who Built A New Knee explains…

When Brian Bartlett was 24 he was hit by a car from behind so hard it ripped his right leg off instantly. It all happened so fast. He doesn’t like to talk about it. “You really can’t understand,” he told me. “There’s just no way to…until you have an injury where you’re ripped or cut apart instantly.”

He turned 25 in the hospital. When he left, fitted above the knee with a prosthetic leg, he wanted to return to his life. Before the accident, Brian had been a competitive skier; he had a sponsorship, and he was on track for the US Olympic team. So after the accident, he was eager to get back to the slopes. It was 1998, long before Oscar Pistorius would take the track at the Olympics or Amy Purdy would take the stage on Dancing with the Stars. When he asked his prosthetist about getting back into skis, he wasn’t ready for what he heard. He was told he wouldn’t ski again, not the way he had before.

The best way to get Brian to do something is to tell him that he can’t. Within a year of the accident, Brian was back on the slopes, skiing with disabled ski teams. In his first year he made it to the International Paralympic Committee’s Alpine Skiing World Cup, and came in seventh in the world. But it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the same. “It just didn’t fill the need,” he says. “It’s not that I didn’t like the disabled sports, it just wasn’t like it used to be.” Brian was back on the mountain using what’s called three-track skis — skiing on one leg, using poles that have tiny skis at the end and are used as outriggers.

He has trouble remembering the exact sequence of events that followed. At some point over the 17 years since his amputation — between truck driving, part-time jobs and a lot of extreme sports — he invented a new kind of knee. The Bartlett Tendon Universal Knee, or BTK, has been featured in museums and called a “pioneering development” in prosthetic technology. But for Brian, all that mattered was whether he could get back on the slopes.

Around 2001–02, Brian joined an able-bodied extreme skiing tour, filled with skiers with two sound legs. It was a disappointment. While the prosthesis he had then — a standard hydraulic mechanical knee — allowed him to walk and hike, it simply didn’t work for the speeds and routes they were skiing. So he didn’t use it. “I would hike to the back country, put the prosthesis in the backpack and ski down with one leg,” he says casually.

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