Documentary ‘Fresh Tracks’ profiles adaptive skiing pioneer Paul Leimkuehler
When Paul Leimkuehler had his leg amputated after it was shredded by shrapnel during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, the injury marked the beginning of a new mission for the Cleveland native and the dawn of adaptive skiing.
The new documentary “Fresh Tracks” tells his inspiring story.
Leimkuehler, an elite athlete who had been an Olympic cycling hopeful, didn’t think missing a limb should hold him back from enjoying athletics. So he got to work on inventing a way to help the disabled to ski.
What he came up with is a hand-held outrigger system that allowed him to balance himself while skiing downhill. Seven decades later, his invention remains the building block for all adaptive skiing in 2020.
“When I started skiing it was like a whole new world opened up for me,” Leimkuehler once said. “Finally, here was something that I could do as well as anybody else.”
Leimkuehler purposefully did not patent the technology, so that others could build on and improve his invention.
“He wanted to make sure it was available for anybody,” his son, Bill, explains in the film.
Leimkuehler’s ski outriggers launched a movement for adaptive skiing and have made him a hero of the snowsports community. Following the Purple Heart he earned in the war, Leimkuehler would be inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and the U.S. Disabled Snow Sports Hall of Fame.
“Without the outrigger, we just wouldn’t be out here skiing,” veteran ski racer Bob Meserve says in “Fresh Tracks.”
His life, of course, is the centerpiece of the film. But it also keenly links Leimkuehler’s early breakthroughs to today’s inventors at work on adaptive snow sports technology. Among them is the 10-time X Games gold medalist snowmobiler Mike Schultz, who had a leg amputated after a crash and has become a leading designer and inventor for adaptive equipment and prosthetics.
“Winning medals at X Games or at the Paralympics is an incredible feeling of accomplishment,” he says in the film. “Seeing people using your equipment, that’s a different level. It’s so much deeper than just winning a medal.”
The 47-minute film screened recently at the virtual Denver Film Festival among several shorts in the “Colorado Stories” section – a high point of the 2020 streaming program. It also screened at the Vail Film Festival earlier this year.
The project began with a feature-length script by Leimkuehler’s granddaughter, Katie, she recalled in a virtual post-screening Q&A. As she was hunting for producing partners and funding, she dropped her plan for a Hollywood-ized version of the story and pivoted to a documentary approach.
“Once they read the screenplay, they said, ‘If you want to honor your grandfather’s legacy, you will have to change a lot of things,’” she recalled. “That’s why I pivoted to documentary.”
She connected with director by Hans Rosenwinkel, the adventure filmmaker behind the short “Empty Net” about Team USA’s adaptive hockey team at the 2018 Paralympic Games. Along with mining family home movies and photos, they shot the new footage for the film across Colorado ski country, including Vail, Winter Park, Arapahoe Basin and backcountry shoots on Loveland Pass. Blessed with deep late season snow in 2019, they shot into May and June.
“If we didn’t have great snow in May and June, we couldn’t have done it,” he recalled.