Life Downhill: the story of Joseph Martin

Published: Feb. 24, 2016 at 10:01 PM EST
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Doctors offices and hospital beds have become the norm for Waynesboro teen Joseph Martin --so much so that the 18-year-old measures his time spent there in years.

But when he's not between doctors' appointments, or recovering from surgery, you can find him on the mountain, carving up the slopes like few you've seen before.

"I was really, really nervous, but excited and happy to be able to go out the first time,” Martin recalls his first time on the mountain. He was eight.

"Sometimes you get double looks, sometimes you get a few laughs," he added. "As you're doing it some people are impressed,” he added.

Joseph has been in and out of the hospital all of his life. The days total to about three-and-a-half years.

"The first few years of life was really a matter of putting him back together,” his mom Mary said.

Joseph was born with cloacal exstrophy, a birth defect found in about one out of every 400,000 births. It leaves internal organs exposed outside the body.

“No one had a name for his birth defect,” Mary recalls. “It took several hours until we knew exactly what was going on and whether he was going to survive."

"I wasn't afraid," she added. "It seems like a funny thing to say; I just had this peace that it was going to be all right.”

His first surgery came at four days old. 56 operations later, Joseph has finally reached a point in his life where his next operation isn't scheduled and he's using his newly-found time to enjoy one of his favorite sports: skiing.

"Sitting down while skiing was a whole different thing to get used to in terms of pressure," Joseph said. "You have to put on the outriggers, the way you lean and move your core.”

Using what is called a monoski, he first hit the slopes when he was eight. "You can just forget about everything," he said. "It's great."

Spina bifida and scoliosis, back conditions, left him in a wheelchair when he was seven. Something that has affected him as he's gotten older.

"I think that when he was a little boy it was a lot easier for him,” said Mary. “All teenagers hit a point where they're very self conscious about their appearance and how they're different. There was a point where he quit swimming because he was aware that his body was different.

Therapeutic Adventures, a Charlottesville based non-profit, has helped him and many others experience the snow in ways they never could have.

"Sports, adaptive sports are a great outlet on so many levels not only the physical level but emotionally, psychologically,” said the group's founder and director Mark Andrews. “To be able to compete, push yourself and learn what you can do is real important and adaptive sports provide that opportunity.”

For the 20th year, the group will hold a downhill race called the Independence Cup at Massanutten Resort in McGaheysville on February 28th. Joseph has raced in it several times before and will again this year.

"I grew up with an older and younger sister," Joseph said. "Just the way my family is, we just get competitive.”

Andrews added, "We've had well over 3,000 people come through and he ranks up there with the best.”

While many people use activities like skiing to escape their stresses, perhaps Joseph uses it to escape more. When attached to that single blade Joseph can do anything everyone on the mountain can.

"I think it's given him more confidence in what he can do with his body,” said Mary. “He loves the sense of speed and being able to compete in something that isn't limited by the fact that he can't walk."