Earth & Conservation

These Athletes Overcame Medical Obstacles and Achieved Amazing Feats in 2016

A climber with MS summited Everest, a cyclist medaled with a 3D-printed leg, two wheelchair adventurers rolled across South America and a quadruple amputee ascended the Matterhorn.

"I need to finish that one off," Jamie Andrew told me last June. The Scottish mountaineer and quadruple amputee was referring to the Matterhorn in Switzerland. Three years ago he made it to within around 650 feet of the summit before the weather forced him to turn around.

Later in the summer, he and his team set out to tackle the famed mountain again.

Andrew is one of several remarkable athletes and adventurers I had the fortune to feature this year - people who took the crappy cards they were dealt and turned them into wins. They didn't let diseases or the loss of limbs stop them from pursuing ambitious goals. Here's a closer look at who they are, and their feats.

A Climber With MS Summited Everest

In May, Dutch social entrepreneur and online marketing pro Niels van Buren reached the top of Mount Everest. Six years prior, he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, an insidious disease that attacks the protective sheath covering nerves. For some, MS is utterly debilitating.

Hailing from Haarlem in the Netherlands, van Buren pursued his plans despite experiencing tingling and numbness in his feet two months before he was supposed to begin climbing. Forging ahead, on May 20 he became the first man with MS to summit Everest. In addition to inspiring others, he has raised more than $74,000 for MS research through his Mission Summit foundation.

"I do not know what the future will bring me, because there is still so much unknown," van Buren said on the Mission Summit site after his climb. "MS remains an unpredictable disease. That is why I am proud that I have succeeded."

A Paralympic Cyclist Medaled on a 3D-Printed Leg

German paralympic cyclist Denise Schindler arrived in Rio last September, she brought a novel piece of equipment with her. In a world's first, she would be donning a 3D-printed leg to compete in three cycling events at the games. Her aerodynamic blade-like prosthetic was designed in collaboration with the software company AutoDesk and took months of testing to finalize.

In Rio, Schindler medaled twice: bronze in the women's cycling road race and silver in the women's time trial. Unlike the carbon-fiber prosthetic she wore at the London Paralympics, her lightweight 3D-printed polycarbonate one didn't cause any abrasions, the trade news outlet MetalMiner reported. Next, she plans to work with AutoDesk on a new everyday walking leg.

"It's just a disability if there's something you can't do," Schindler told MetalMiner.

Two Wheelchair Adventurers Head Off the Beaten Path

Polish adventurers Maciej Kamiński and Michał Woroch set out on November 9 for the road trip of a lifetime. The friends, both in their early 30s, first met at a physical therapy clinic years ago. Although they both need wheelchairs, that hasn't tempered their plans to travel off the beaten path.

Their gutsy goal is no less than driving a retrofitted 1966 Land Rover from Buenos Aires south to the tip of South America and then north along the continent's entire Pacific coast all the way to Costa Rica. The trip, supported by an annual Polish travel and exploration award, will probably take about six months.

Kamiński and Woroch encountered twists and turns since starting. Their Land Rover took longer than expected to emerge from customs. Once out on the road, they ran out of fuel in the middle of nowhere and discovered that the gas station on their map was long gone. Fortunately two local guys showed up, sold them several gallons and even treated them to dinner.

En route to a village in southern Argentina on a bumpy road, they heard a dull crack. It was the steel cable for their rear lift, which they need for ascending to the rooftop tent. "We wondered how it could happen that the steel cable could break while we were driving, a cable that can haul a large ATV out of the mud," they wrote in a blog post. An Argentinian named Tranquilo gave them a hand. "Ropes were found. The lift was repaired. We drive."

A Quadruple Amputee Ascended the Matterhorn

Jamie Andrew popped up on my radar after I read about how he and his friends ended up assisting with a mountain rescue while they were attempting to traverse the 14-peak Cuillin Ridge on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Nearly 20 years ago, he had lost both hands and feet to severe frostbite following a tragic expedition in the French Alps that killed his friend and climbing partner Jamie Fisher.

Over time, Andrew learned how to stay stable on his prosthetic feet. He conditioned his arm stumps for climbing, and began using custom ice axe and crampon prosthetic attachments. He also has specialized poles. Last summer, Andrew returned to the 14,692-foot Matterhorn with friends and fellow mountain climbers Steve Jones and Steve Monks. No other quadruple amputee had gotten to the top.

In early August, the dream finally came true. The team set out at 5 am, reached the summit at 11 am under blue cloudless skies, and got back down at 5:30 pm, Andrew reported on Facebook. A storm rolled in about an hour and a half later.

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