Paralympic Snowboarder Andre Barbieri Competes in the Sport that Cost Him His Leg
The Brazilian Athlete Is Unofficially Representing Santa Barbara
By John Zant | February 10, 2022
Andre Barbieri refers to March 11 as his “ampuversary” — celebrating the day in 2011 that a snowboarding accident cost him his left leg.
It has become an occasion to celebrate because so much goodness has blossomed from Barbieri’s misfortune. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he embraced a spirit of euphoria that has spread like a benign infection among many people who’ve gotten to know him.
Thanks to their support and his own athletic resilience, Barbieri will be going to Beijing next month to participate in the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. He is a para-snowboarder for Brazil, his native country. Unofficially, he will be representing Santa Barbara, his adopted hometown for the last 15 years.
The 40-year-old Barbieri is scheduled to compete in two events: the snowboard cross and the banked slalom. He is especially looking forward to the slalom. “It’s like a video game,” he said, and it will fall on his 11th “ampuversary.”
It might have been a date in his obituary if he had not sped up to pass his older brother, Diego, that morning as they were snowboarding down a slope at Mammoth Mountain.
“I saw the whole thing,” Diego recalled. “[Andre] hit the end of fence that was sticking out, because the snow had melted about a foot. He lost control, went down, and slammed into a fence about mid-thigh high. It went ‘crack, crack!’ [The bone] was sticking out in back, four inches above the knee. He said, ‘This is pretty bad.’ ”
Andre had suffered a compound fracture of the femur and a severed femoral artery.
“After I took his snowboard out,” Diego said, “I tackled this guy and took his phone. ‘Sorry, I need to call for help.’ The rescue team came, got a tourniquet on him, and tied him to a sled.”
Diego realized later, “If he hadn’t gone past me, I would have kept going down the mountain, and he would have bled out.”
Barbieri’s friends sent him off to the Olympics with a personalized rock symbolizing his gritty determination. His new shock-absorbing prosthetic leg, the Moto Knee, was created by U.S. Paralympic team member Mike Schultz. | Credit: John Zant
Andre was airlifted to a hospital in Reno, where he underwent four surgeries over the course of five days. When it was apparent that his leg would never function again, he agreed to have it amputated above the knee.
“My brother was next to me,” Andre remembered, “and I said, ‘I’m sorry I ruined our weekend.’ ”
Only a year and a half apart in age, Diego and Andre are best friends as well as brothers. They grew up in Lajeado, a town in Rio Grande do Sul, the southernmost state of Brazil, sharing a border with Argentina. “Our state’s people are called gauchos,” Andre said.
Brazil is a huge country with a big appetite for sports, especially soccer. “It has a whole lot of people who don’t have a lot of things and don’t have a whole lot to live for,” Diego said. “A victory when you’re competing — it means something greater than a prize for someone who doesn’t have much else going on in life.”
Luiz Barbieri, their father, is a truck dealer. “He was the soccer superstar of the town, still plays at 70,” Diego said. “He could have gone further as a player, but he had a family to take care of. My mother said, ‘Why don’t you break your leg so we can feed the children?’ ” Ingrid, their mother, was an English teacher.
One of the boys’ heroes was Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian racecar champion. “He had great charisma, ethos, and personality, unlike soccer players who seemed arrogant,” Andre said. “Formula One racing was a religion up until Senna died,” Diego said. A horrific accident took the driver’s life in 1994. “If he was injured and not dead, I feel he’d be just like me,” Andre said. “They made a movie about him. It gave me a good cry.”
Andre’s road to recovery began in the Mesa Lane home he shared with his brother. Diego had been responsible for Andre’s moving to Santa Barbara in 2007. “I was already here, managing at Epiphany restaurant,” Diego said. “Andre wasn’t too happy with his work situation in Brazil. I told him, ‘Come here. I’ll hire you.’ ” Along with the job came surfing, which both Diego and Andre enjoyed tremendously, and occasional snowboarding.
Soon after Andre’s accident, he was surrounded by family and friends, including his mother, followed by his father and Karina Peil, his girlfriend, whom he had met at a physical therapy school in Brazil in 2005.“When I found out about the accident, I prayed to God to allow him to be alive,” Peil said. “We need people like him to show what life is all about.”
Aside from the pain that came with Andre’s healing, it was a joyful time. “Our family has a pretty bright outlook on life,” Diego said. “We’re just happy people. We tend to look on the bright side. There are many more things [Andre] can do than things he cannot do.”
In the prime of his life at 30, Barbieri threw himself into physical activity. He swam as soon as the staples were removed from his wounded leg. He could pedal a bike one-legged. He acquired a prosthetic leg for walking, and then a bladed prosthetic for running.
He began competing in para triathlons — swimming, biking, and running — and was good enough at it that he could dream about representing Brazil at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. Many friends and acquaintances dreamed along with him, a lean (6’3” and 175 pounds) and entrancing athlete with a winning personality.
“It was insane, the amount of support I had,” he said at the time. “The Boathouse [where he used to work] did a fundraiser, my friends here did another, my friends in Brazil another. I was able to buy my first prosthetic leg. I would cry every day; I was so emotional back then. I feel like I’ll never repay that debt from what everybody did for me.”
He trained by day and took a job as a nighttime cab driver. But in one of the triathlons that would be a key to qualifying for Rio, Barbieri was disqualified over a technical mistake. When the final rankings came out before the Paralympics — there would be 10 athletes in his division of the triathlon competition — Barbieri was in 11th place.
“It has been about the journey,” he said. “It has brought me so much fun and joy, and inspiration to me and to others.” Peil stuck with him throughout the journey. “Life is never boring with him,” she said. “We’re in this together.” She and Barbieri were married at Hendry’s Beach in October 2015.
When the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics program came out, Barbieri’s category in the triathlon was not included. Scratch that dream. He did a lot of surfing — becoming quite adept at maneuvering upright on a kneeboard — and he mustered the courage to try snowboarding, which opened a door to the Winter Paralympics.
With a new shock-absorbing prosthetic leg, the Moto Knee — created by U.S. Paralympic gold medalist Mike Schultz — Barbieri started racing on snowboards in 2018. He accumulated enough points to make it to Beijing 2022 on the Brazilian team. It’s something he could not have accomplished by staying in Brazil, where snow exists only in movies.
But his life has been too busy lately to spend much time on the slopes, Barbieri said. He has been working for Hanger, a prosthetic company, as a development manager and community care coordinator. “I’m able to give back,” he said. “I meet with patients before and after amputations. That is the most enlightening part of my job.”
He and Peil, who works as a PT aide at Cottage Hospital, have two daughters — Stella, 3½, and Maile, who was born last year on March 11, Barbieri’s 10th “ampuversary.” The hardest part of his going to the Winter Paralympics is that he will be missing them — as well as his three-legged dog, Pogo — for a month and a half. He was headed to British Columbia for intensive training last weekend and will not return from Beijing until March 15.
Barbieri’s list of sponsors includes Backyard Bowls, The Lab, Motion Unlimited, and Loma Linda University’s Team PossAbilities, for which he serves as an ambassador.
He also recently received a donation from his friends on Team Bad Joke, a group of some 20 men and women who meet twice weekly for ocean swims off Leadbetter Beach. They know him as “Aunt Bait” because, as team cofounder Joe Howell explained, Barbieri was changing clothes after a swim one day when a woman came up to him and said, “My aunt wants you to know she thinks you’re handsome.” The initials, “AB,” fit too.
After he endured a joke (Michael Crandell: “What’s the cookie capital of Brazil? Oreo de Janeiro”), the team presented Barbieri with a personalized rock, symbolizing his gritty determination, painted in Brazil’s colors. “Snowboarding cost me my leg, almost cost me my life, but it’s joyful to get back to it,” he told them. “I don’t care if I finish last. I made it.”
WHERE TO SEE
The Paralympic Winter Games will run March 4-13 at the same site as Beijing’s ongoing Winter Olympics (February 4-20). They will receive ample coverage on NBC, including seven hours on the main network and all events televised on Peacock. USA will cover the opening and closing ceremonies.
Barbieri is aware of the controversy over the Games being staged while China is accused of massive human rights violations. “Most of us do not agree with what is going on,” he said. “If I put all my attention on it, I might not choose to go. I will do it for the sport. Enjoy the Paralympics for what it is.”
Paralympic Snowboarding Events
Snowboard Cross (March 6-7): A snowboard competition that first consists of time-trial: three runs down a course, only one rider at a time, with the best run determining their placement for head-to-head brackets. “Monster Mike” Schultz, a 40-year-old Minnesotan who lost his left leg in a 2008 snowboarding accident, won the event at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Paralympics.
Banked Slalom (March 11-12): Each athlete gets three runs down the course with the best run determining the final results based on ascending time. There is only one rider on the course at a time. The course may be a medium pitched slope, preferably on naturally varying terrain, with plenty of bumps and dips, in a U-shape/natural valley. American Noah Elliott won the gold medal in 2018, four years after he lost his left leg because of cancer at 17.
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