Univ. of Utah ‘Tetra Ski’ invention could become part of future Paralympic Games

Mar 8, 2022, 7:58 PM | Updated: Feb 14, 2023, 12:43 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The mountains after a good snowstorm are the kinds of days Dustin Godnick can’t wait for.

“It’s nice to feel the wind and it’s nice to come feel the sun,” he said. “It’s just beautiful and it feels good. Feels really good.”

It’s especially good for Godnick because gearing up at a ski resort is something he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to do again.

The car crash he was in when he was 17 years old changed everything.

For a kid who grew up in Park City, the damage done to his love of skiing was almost as bad as his spinal cord injuries.

“I broke my neck, basically the fourth and fifth vertebrae,” Godnick said. “The technical term is tetraplegic. Another term for it is quadriplegic, but I can move my arm. So really, it’s tetraplegic.”

That was in 2001.

The thing about an injury from 21 years ago, though, is it means there has been plenty of time for technology to catch up.

“There’s no other ski like it,” he said with a big smile. “As soon as they asked me if I wanted to try it, I said, ‘Let’s get me out there. Let’s crank it up. Let’s go fast.’”

Godnick is talking about a Tetra-Ski.

It’s a sled designed by University of Utah engineers and scientists to allow those with complex disabilities to ski down a mountain again.

Godnick and Dr. Jeffrey Rosenbluth, who is the spinal cord injury medical director for the University of Utah, showed how the sled works during a recent trip to Alta Ski Resort up Little Cottonwood Canyon.

“The TETRA ski has wide base skis. So, you are kind of naturally balanced on the snow,” Rosenbluth said. “We have electric actuators on each ski. Those are controlled by either a joystick if you have enough upper extremity function, or if you don’t, if you have no function in your trunk, your arms, and even your neck, we’re able to use your breath to actually control the ski.”

That’s right. Your breath using a little tube in your mouth.

“You can actually puff a little bit to turn right, sip a little to turn left and you have control of everything in between,” Rosenbluth said.

Rosenbluth was tethered to Godnick’s sled for this demonstration, but whoever is in the sled has full control.

“The role of the instructor to have the tether is really just in case there was a catastrophic failure, which we would never be able to live with ourselves,” Rosenbluth said. “So, I can put on the emergency brake very quickly if I needed to. But the whole goal in this sport, in the tetra ski, is for me to do nothing — to hang out and maybe give a few pointers and just have a great time.”

It works so well; the adaptive skiing community would like to have it included in a future Winter Paralympic Games.

There has never been a Paralympic sport quadriplegics and other complex disability athletes could compete in. However, this sled could give them that opportunity.

“Step by step, we are getting closer,” said Tanja Kari. “I think it’s time to expand the opportunities for these athletes to recreate and have fun with sports, but also to compete.”

Kari, a former Paralympic athlete, says the International Olympic Committee is aware of the Tetra Ski and how it would allow athletes with high-level disabilities the chance to compete on the world’s biggest stage.

“They are listening. They are interested. There is an interest from the Paralympic movement to expand the opportunities for athletes with high support needs,” she said.

Kari is also a director for the TRAILS program, which stands for Technology, Recreation, Access, Independence, Lifestyle, Sports. It’s a team of rehabilitation professionals who want to focus on activities those with complex disabilities can incorporate into an active lifestyle.

Kari says it helps them with their physical and mental health.

The Tetra Ski is now a part of their mission.

“We as groups who are working on this field, we have to do the pioneer work,” Kari said.

There are opportunities for people to try the Tetra Ski at Utah and Colorado ski resorts.

There is also a Tetra Ski competition race set to be held at Powder Mountain on March 25, 2022.

Kari hopes the momentum from that race, and future races, could place Tetra Ski into the Winter Paralympics for either Italy in 2026, or possibly Salt Lake City in 2030 — if Utah wins the bid.

“I can imagine here in Salt Lake City someone like Dustin bringing down the Paralympic Olympic torch in the Tetra Ski,” she said. “Using just what they have above the neck left and making it happen independently. That is, I think, that is my dream.”

One of Godnick’s dreams has already come true — he’s skiing again. Now, all he wants to do is go faster.

“I love cranking it up,” he said with a laugh. “Getting up here again, it feels fantastic.”

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Univ. of Utah ‘Tetra Ski’ invention could become part of future Paralympic Games