FRISCO, Colo. — In a different world, Jon Kreamelmeyer, 75, would have been in Canada competing in the Masters World Cup of cross-country skiing last week.
Instead, he was learning to navigate life with one leg.
In January 2021, Kreamelmeyer, an International Paralympic Committee technical classifier who helps determine the competition class for new athletes and a former U.S. Paralympic coach, noticed a dull pain in his right leg. A hot sensation radiated from his calf to his foot. He felt as though the ball of his right foot were filled with marbles.
But after he finished working out, the pain mostly went away, so he disregarded it. That is, until last August.
One day, Kreamelmeyer hiked up a mountain near his home in Frisco. Later that evening, he felt a painful jolt behind his right knee, as if something had come loose.
“I knew something happened in my leg,” he said. “My wife looked at me and said, ‘We should go to the E.R.’ I said, ‘I’ll go in the morning.’”
Doctors took one look at his right foot and put him in a Flight for Life helicopter to Denver. It turned out an aneurysm behind his knee had formed a blood clot, cutting off blood flow in his right leg.
“The doctor told me, ‘You’re going to lose your leg,’” said Kreamelmeyer, who coached the U.S. Paralympic cross-country skiing team from 1998 to 2006 and was inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2014.
Having coached athletes with various leg amputations — he began his Paralympic career as a sighted guide for the blind skier Michele Drolet, winning a bronze medal in 1994 — Kreamelmeyer realized right away that preserving at least a part of the limb would increase his chances of continuing the sports he loved and give him more options in general for getting around.
So rather than hysterics, he responded with a directive: “Try to save as much as you can.”
He underwent six surgeries in eight days, until his entire right leg was gone. Nonetheless, he remained in high spirits.
“I said, ‘Let’s go forward and make it work,’” he said.
He was home for about a week. Then, inexplicably, his entire body gradually shut down. One afternoon, he had trouble writing his name. The next morning, he couldn’t move. His family took him to the hospital, and he was once again rushed to Denver, this time in an ambulance. There, he went into respiratory failure.
“I died,” Kreamelmeyer said, raising his eyebrows as though he still couldn’t believe it. “Then they intubated me and brought me back to life.”
He came down with pneumonia and spent nearly two months in the hospital. In late November, he finally returned home. These days, you’ll find him abandoning his crutches to hop around his living room or to shovel or snow blow his driveway. He has also returned to the Nordic trails on a sit ski. He recently spent an afternoon coaching his masters group, whose members pooled their money to buy him a SkiErg fitness machine for strengthening his upper body — and custom winter hats that read, “ONLY ONE JK.”
“It was different hopping around on the trails with crutches, giving a verbal explanation of what I saw,” Kreamelmeyer said. “What was frustrating was that I couldn’t demonstrate.”
He hopes that a prosthetic will allow him the option of hitting the trails again in a standing position, rather than on a sit ski. But he also keeps things in perspective, and is grateful to be able to prioritize returning to sports at all — learning to get around on one leg, after all, changes nearly every aspect of one’s daily life.
“The hard part is, you just don’t get up and walk to the refrigerator, answer the door or go outside,” Kreamelmeyer said. “It takes a lot of time. There’s just another layer of things to think about.”
It’s the day-to-day activities that still trip up Kreamelmeyer’s friend and fellow amputee Willie Stewart, who lost his left arm in a construction accident when he was 18 but who went on, under Kreamelmeyer’s coaching, to win a Paralympic medal. Stewart has completed Ironman triathlons and the grueling Leadman race, which consists of 280 miles of trail running and biking above 10,000 feet.
But just because he has learned to live without his arm doesn’t mean he doesn’t miss it.
“The most disabled I ever feel is trying to button my shirt,” Stewart said.
Yet he said losing a limb has been a blessing because it afforded him opportunities to travel the world, make great friends and overcome obstacles. He has been imparting such sentiments to Kreamelmeyer.
“He’s full circle now,” Stewart said. “Here’s a 75-year-old guy who has helped so many people in his life, went through multiple amputations and died seven times. I tell him, don’t go dying now or I’ll put ‘quitter’ on your tombstone.”
According to his protégés, Kreamelmeyer has always had a gift for teaching others to obliterate challenges in their path.
“We gave him the nickname Baby Buddha,” said Mike Crenshaw, a Nordic skier who lost his lower right leg in a tractor accident nearly 50 years ago and won a Paralympic medal under Kreamelmeyer’s tutelage. “He had a consistently positive attitude, and if we put in the hard training, he was always like, ‘It’ll all work out.’ He was also a really good skier. It made us want to work really hard for him.”
Kreamelmeyer’s wife, Claudia, said that if there was any human being who could put his best foot — albeit his only foot — forward, it was her husband.
“He probably won’t do a Masters World Cup again, but he’ll be figuring out which athletic activities he can do,” she said. “Having an open mind and an open heart, that’s Jon’s nature. My hope is that he stays connected with the International Paralympic Committee.
“He had good understanding before,” she added, referring to his keen eye for movement analysis and determining what Paralympic athletes were capable of as an able-bodied man. “But he’s going to have an even more profound understanding now.”
Kreamelmeyer’s amputee friends have for a long time jokingly referred to themselves as “the gimp club.” Kreamelmeyer accepts his membership with humility.
“I don’t know if it’s ironical, or a blessing, but I had 20 years of experience being around disabled athletes, so I have an understanding of what’s going on,” he said. “I’m proud to be part of the club. On the other hand, being part of the club requires a lot of acceptance. I’m still in that period of trying to accept what I can do and what I can’t do.”
The word “disabled,” after all, has never sat well with Kreamelmeyer.
“When a machine is disabled, it’s broken,” he said. “But you’re not broken. You’re changing. It’s a matter of embracing the change and then transforming into what you will become.”