Zack Bastian: An Endless Ability

By Sarah Bell
Photographs by Sarah Bell and Steph Lavallee

Grand Junction, Colorado, October 4, 2016 – “I hadn’t done a lot of mountain biking,” says Zack Bastian sheepishly, “and there I was on a single-track mountain biking trail, with high grass on either side of me, trying to physically and technically control this new equipment. I kept veering off into the grass, rolled down a ten-foot embankment and ended up in the Colorado River, holding onto some branches, one leg loosely attached to the hand cycle. It was kind of scary and it was kind of funny, too.”

These things happen at World T.E.A.M. Sports’ Adventure Team Challenge. Says Billy Mattison, designer of the Adventure Team Challenge race course: “Adventure is an endeavor in which the outcome is unknown; and involves risk.”

Zack Bastian rows to the finish line.

Zack Bastian, Team Endless Abilities adaptive athlete, rows to the finish line at World T.E.A.M. Sports Adventure Team Challenge, Colorado, September 22- 25, 2016.

How one handles the unknown and is saved (bike and all) from the cold rapids of the Colorado River involves teamwork.

“I looked up into the brush and saw a hand, grabbed and realized it was my teammate Alex,” explains Zack. Within seconds, another teammate, Will, had found a thin strap, lassoed it around Zack and began pulling him out. “It was so painful but we just yelled, ‘one, two, three,’ and then they yanked. In a few seconds I was out of the water.” Zack pauses and then laughs: “It gets better. The bike was gone, under a bridge, through a tunnel and at the bottom of a small waterfall. But we got that back too, as a team.”

Zack, Will Humphrey, Bradley Johnson, Alex Figueroa and Leslie Kindling competed on the “Endless Abilities” team this year at Adventure Team Challenge, Colorado at Highline Lake State Park in Loma, Colorado. The three-day, multi-outdoor-sport is the only one of its kind and is fully sanctioned by the U.S. Adventure Race Association. In its tenth year now, the event attracts athletes from across the country to compete in outdoor challenges such as hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing and rappelling, and white water rafting in teams of five – three able-bodied athletes, and two adaptive athletes, one of whom must use a wheelchair.

It was Endless Abilities’ (a team sponsored by Devens Recycling and originally comprised of filmmakers from Boston-based studio Windy Films, who produced and directed an independent documentary about Zack and other adaptive athletes titled Endless Abilities) second year competing as a team, but the first year Zack was able to compete himself. In 2015, an eleventh hour injury prevented him from joining his team. Although he still flew out to Colorado to cheer them on, he knew this year was going to be different. Several new able-bodied and adaptive athletes joined on the team, and Zack was physically ready this time: he had trained and competed in two marathons, including Boston, shed 70 pounds, and was in peak condition.

Team Endless Abilities in Colorado.

Team Endless Abilities pauses at the Knowles Canyon Overlook in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area in western Colorado to pose for a group shot. Front: Zack Bastian; rear from left to right: Alex Figueroa, Bradley Johnson, Leslie Kindling and Will Humphrey.

At age 16, Zack was injured in a motorbike accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Active in track, football and wrestling, he was determined to keep moving post-injury. Soon as he could, he returned to the gym and started lifting weights. “I just wheeled around in my chair to try to stay active.” When a buddy asked him to go surfing. Zack laughed and said, “How am I going to do that?” Together, they stopped by a Rhode Island surf beach and that’s where things really began to turn for Zack. “I saw an adaptive athlete on an adaptive surf board. Within two years, I was surfing all over the country again.” Zack says it was strange at first as he got out of his wheelchair and dragged himself to the surf under the gaze of curious onlookers. “But once I was on that board, I was independent; I had a brand new identity.”

Zack’s team faced adversity from the start of the weekend’s events. Friday’s prologue had him accidentally swimming in the Colorado River. The next day, the team experienced two flat tires. Bradley Johnson, an athlete with double leg amputations, was plagued by muscle cramps. The team went off course. “At one point, late in the competition,” says Zack, “we knew were the slowest team, and we decided to just take it all in, lose the pressure to ‘win’ and just enjoy the experience. That’s when we really started gelling and getting into a groove: when we let go of expectations and just enjoyed the ride.”

“I no longer believe in failure,” Zack says. “We kept taking the punches and overcoming adversity. When we realized we couldn’t control certain things – we could only control our reaction – that was a key moment. We knew we were going to get through it, and we did.”

Climbing the Hershey's Kiss.

An adaptive athlete of a competing team scales the slippery slope of a sandstone rock formation called “Hershey’s Kiss” in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Colorado.

Zack proudly describes Adventure Team Challenge as one of the top five experiences of his life. Though he felt more physically fit, both pre- and post-injury, than ever before, he didn’t quite believe the Challenge would change his life. After crossing the finish line, Zack held his medal in his hand thoughtfully. “This one I’m keeping. I got one last year for showing up, but this one … this one I earned.” He vows to tell as many people as he can about his experience and agrees with what Van Brinson, President and CEO of World T.E.A.M. Sports, says at the beginning of every event: “Give World T.E.A.M. Sports this one weekend, put your trust in us, and I promise you you will leave here a changed person.”

“Totally true,” says Zack. “I learned so much. Everything is different now.”

The 2016 Adventure Team Challenge Colorado from World T.E.A.M. Sports was supported through partnerships from American Portfolios Financial Services, Audubon Orthotic & Prosthetic Services, Devens Recycling Center, Ernst & Young, James Benson, LIM Innovations, Napier Park Global Capital, Pearl Meyer, Penske Truck Rental, Presidential Worldwide Transportation, Rutgers University – Department of Athletics, Sila Solutions Group, and Timberline Tours.