Sean Reyngoudt exhibits a certain grace reserved for gymnasts and acrobats as he dances on water and flies through the air, exceeding speeds of 30 miles per hour and reaching heights of 150 feet. Rather than being self-propelled, however, his feet are strapped to a 141-cm-long carbon-fiber and fiberglass board and his body is tethered to a 13-foot-long by 4-foot-wide arc of fabric that allows him to harness the wind to turn his tricks. And the stronger the wind blows the better, he says, even if it's a tropical storm with 60-mile-per-hour gusts battering the shores of his hometown in Key West, Florida. His ability to channel the wind's force has elevated him to elite athlete status.
Reyngoudt, 27, is the world's only professional amputee kite-surfer. Since taking up the sport in 2006, about a year after his amputation, this young man and his kite have flown far and wide. In January, Reyngoudt costarred in the Discovery Channel's action-adventure series "Catching Air," which featured some of his travels. During the six episodes, he was filmed kitesurfing in the Florida Keys, Oregon, and Alaska, among other places.
"People are kitesurfing all over now," Reyngoudt says. "They're kitesurfing in the snow, in the ocean, lakes, rivers, pretty much anywhere you have an open area....You can…[use] anything that allows you to slide on water, roll on the land, or [glide on] snow, [as long as you have]…a kite to pull yourself." Of course, the wind is the essential element, he adds.
Wakeboarding was Reyngoudt's "gateway" into kitesurfing. "I knew I was going to be addicted the first time I tried it," he says. Now, Reyngoudt spends most of his waking hours either kitesurfing, wakeboarding—which is good cross-training for kitesurfing—or land-training for kitesurfing competitions by running, biking, and doing push-ups, pull-ups, and balance training.
However, before Reyngoudt could take to the skies, he had to be able to walk again.
At the age of 19, a work-related forklift accident claimed Reyngoudt's left leg below the knee. He spent three months in a wheelchair and another eight months hobbling around on crutches because his first prosthesis caused him discomfort and pain. Armed with a vocal mother, a fantastic attorney, and the news media as a mouthpiece, Reyngoudt eventually won a battle against an insurance company that dictated care levels based on its bottom dollar. That is when he turned to his prosthetists of choice, Alan Finnieston, CPO, LPO, and his son Adam Finnieston, CPO, LPO, of Arthur Finnieston Prosthetics + Orthotics, Miami, Florida.
"Sean…had still not been physically rehabilitated," Alan Finnieston says. "He could not ambulate without pain, and he was still on crutches…. Finnieston explains that Reyngoudt's pain was due to an overlooked osteophyte. "We use a CAD/CAM [system] we developed with one of my other companies called BioSculptor®. We scanned Sean in the morning…did the shape manipulation, we milled the model, and pulled an HPP socket for him."
Finnieston explains that the HPP socket/gel liner with a silicone rubber and foam injection/suspension sleeve combination that Reyngoudt, and all their transtibial patients are fit with, is a vacuum-assisted, compliant Active Socket™ with no mechanical or electrical components. He describes the injection process, a technique he says has been around since 1962 but is now "lost." The practitioner "does a silicone rubber and foam injection while the patient is standing…," he says. "We put a little silicone sleeve over [the injection hole] and it becomes a one-way valve that expels any air that's in it when the patient is walking." Because this methodology allows for controlled total contact under weight bearing, Finnieston says his patients achieve a successful and comfortable fit. He adds that it is also light weight, doesn't require additional componentry, and there's nothing to maintain.
Reyngoudt's is a perfect example of the successful, comfortable fit that Finnieston mentions. His socket was finished off with a Freedom Innovations Renegade foot, and Reyngoudt says he actually ran out of Finnieston's office that same afternoon. He hasn't stopped running, riding, or flying since.
"The Renegade foot…[gives me] flexibility and movement… and it's the most durable," Reyngoudt says, adding that he can use this multi-purpose foot on land and in water. His socket is especially water-sports friendly because it lacks mechanical or electrical components, he adds.
Return to Sports
Six months after being fit with his Renegade foot, Reyngoudt strapped on his wakeboard again. A few months later, Finnieston encouraged him to compete in the first Extremity Games, held in Orlando, Florida, in June 2006.
"I was a wakeboarder before the Extremity Games," Reyngoudt says. "I wasn't really that great, but I could do a couple tricks, one or two flips, 360s, and stuff like that.… I started training and trying to figure out how to keep my leg on better in the water…and…what board and boots would be the best for wakeboarding." The system that he and Finnieston devised to ready his leg for water sports requires a product that has been used to repair military equipment and the Apollo 13, is touted to prevent blisters and remove warts, and has been used to fabricate wallets and prom dresses: duct tape, and lots of it.
"My leg is held on by suction," Reyngoudt explains. "Basically I have to seal my leg with duct tape. I seal my suspension sleeve to my socket. I have a smaller…suspension sleeve that covers the whole of my socket so it only allows the air to go back out and not back in, and I seal that as well with duct tape. I use an extra piece of suspension sleeve to go up over the top, closer to my hip area so it doesn't allow the water to come in from the top. That's what I found works the best." He admits that his method is not foolproof, however. "If I fall hard enough, [my leg] gets ripped off because the suspension sleeves can't handle the forces sometimes…. Other than that it stays on pretty good.
"So once I had all that figured out, I was training all the time…and I went [to the Extremity Games] and actually ended up winning first place in the wakeboarding competition." Reyngoudt claimed first place again in 2007 and 2008.
That same summer, Reyngoudt borrowed kitesurfing gear from a buddy and took it for a test ride in the ocean. Although Reyngoudt says his 50-foot ride ended in a crash, he was hooked. "I felt the power of the wind and saw the possibilities of being able to jump high in the air and not just being controlled behind the boat; you're pretty much free and able to go anywhere you want with a kite."
Reyngoudt says that he hopes his status as the only professional amputee kitesurfer will serve as an inspiration to other amputees and encourage them to explore extreme sports. "When I was in the hospital, I didn't really have much [inspiration] and I know it's a crucial time for amputees…to have something to look forward to or someone to help support or mentor [them]," he says. "Hopefully I can be that for a lot of other people."
This year the June 24–25 Extremity Games wakeboarding division was a qualifier for the World Wakeboarding Association's (WWA) new Adaptive Standing and Adaptive Sit-Boarding Divisions for the 2011 Nautique WWA Wakeboard National Championships. Reyngoudt's training paid off with a first place finish in the elite division.
Reyngoudt is a certified kitesurfing instructor, volunteering his time to teach other amputees to learn the sport. He says he would like to organize an amputee learn-to-wakeboard clinic. He also volunteered at the Extremity Games' wakeboarding clinic "to help teach and just give people some advice, what I do basically to keep my leg on, and what they can do and things like that….
"I just want to be able to help out as much as possible," he says. "It's always good to be able to give back to others. You know, good things come from [giving back]. You might not see it right off-hand, but things happen for a reason. We just never know what that reason is."
Laura Hochnadel can be reached at