Welcome back to Pain to Purpose. My name is Rebekah Gregory. I’m so excited to be joined by Josh Sundquist today. Josh is an amputee comedian, author, and inspirational speaker… and on top of it all, an American Paralympian. Josh lost his leg at the age of nine years old when he got a diagnosis that no one wants to ever hear… cancer. And how Josh has turned his ultimate pain into the most incredible purpose is the total embodiment of what this podcast is all about. Thank you, Josh, so much for joining me on pain to purpose today. How are you doing?

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Josh:

Good. Thanks for having me on the podcast.

 

Rebekah:

Well, I felt like there’s no better person that really embodies the whole ‘pain to purpose’ mentality that we’re going for now. So I want you to kind of start off with what happened to you that changed the entire course of your life.

 

Josh:

When I was a child, I had two legs, as you also did as a child, and I really like to play soccer. Soccer was like my thing, like my jam, and then I was diagnosed with cancer when I was nine. I had a tumor in my left leg in my femur. And so I was on chemotherapy for a while; chemotherapy didn’t get rid of the cancer, so my leg was amputated at the hip. So very high up. I’m a hip disarticulation, which means I’m missing my leg very high… like I don’t have a leg at all on my left side. Anyway, so I had chemotherapy for another nine months, but I was on treatment for like a year. But obviously, I survived, and I got to grow up and be an adult and have disarticulation, which is great.

 

Rebekah:

You say that so nonchalant. And it’s funny because I feel like people sometimes don’t know how to respond when they find out that you’re missing a leg. And mine is obviously just partly missing, but the story is heavy. At nine years old, they had to take your leg. So, how did that feel… what was going through your head?

 

Josh:

At that time? I guess at the time obviously, it’s terrifying, right? You know, now I’ve been an amputee for like 25 years, so it’s a different perspective now, right. It’s not hard to talk about or say… so emotionally I’m in a different place. And it’s interesting because as you know, I do a lot of humor related to being an amputee… Halloween costumes and stand up comedy. And I often receive messages from people who recently lost a limb or like, Hey, your humor brings such comfort and relieved a lot of my stress and tension and stuff, but it also sometimes people will come to me and be like, Hey, my friend’s daughter is like 12. And she’s about to, lose her leg. What would you recommend?

Like, yeah, they need to hear some jokes about the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. So it’s like, when the time is right… send them some videos or maybe one of my books. Because, yeah, you know, there’s a time when it was not funny, obviously. It was really devastating. And I think the thing I was most concerned about at that age in regards to the amputation, was playing sports, and whether I’d be able to play sports, knowing that I probably wasn’t gonna play soccer again, as an amputee. So I think that was the main thing, probably going through my mind, going into the surgery…

 

Rebekah:

I asked that because obviously, I lost my leg at age 27. So it was hard enough to deal with that part of it for me as an adult, but I couldn’t imagine having all of those things take place as a child and as far as the people around you, did they embrace that or it was there people that didn’t understand. Did you get bullied or anything?

 

Josh:

Yeah, I yeah, it’s certainly different to lose a leg as a child versus an adult. I would say in fact, though, I always say like, if you’re gonna lose a leg, I would do it when you’re a child. Like that would be what you should pick if given the option. When you’re a child, you’re so much more physically resilient, you know, you’re still growing. And you know, there’s less of the existential questions. And of course, you’re self-conscious. But I don’t know you’re not self-conscious the way you are as an adult. So it was like, Yeah, I was worried about it, but I was kind of like ‘oh my friends. Oh, yeah, they’re still my friends.’ I mean, I was lucky. I grew up in a very loving community. I was homeschooled, and most of my friends were homeschoolers and kids I knew from church. I lived in a small town in Virginia and there was a really great culture in which to grow up. People treated me very well. If anything, I think people have always been so because for you, it’s like your, the scenario for you is what like you’re wearing a leg and they haven’t seen that there’s a fake leg or you’re wearing pants or something. Mm hmm. And

 

Rebekah:

Just those stares, the initial stares a lot of times… we live in Florida, so on the beach I freak a lot of kids out with my robot leg as my son calls it.

 

Josh:

Do you ever have people who are like, ‘Oh, why are you limping?’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, I got blown up in a terrorist attack and lost my leg.’ Does that ever happen?

 

Rebekah:

It did. And it’s so funny that you say that because there was one particular time at the grocery store where this man came up to me, and he was tapping me on the shoulder. He was so mad because I parked in a handicapped spot. And I had pants on that day. And so I lifted up my pant leg and I said, ‘I’m so sorry, my leg is sore,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you’re that bombing girl,’ and he turned so red.

 

Josh:

He knew who you were?

 

Rebekah:

Yeah, well, he had seen it on the news and things like that. And so it was just funny though because to me, it was a sense of accomplishment. Because I had all the time used to go to the gym and try to walk as best as I could… I was would go to the mall and mimic other people’s steps every single day. Where if I had jeans on, then no one would know.

 

Josh:

So I don’t generally wear a leg, so people see it right away. And so people always ask me like, ‘oh, how’d you lose your leg?’ And I find often when I say cancer, people are like… disappointed. They’re shocked. They’re like, ‘Oh, cancer…’. Often I think people think I’m a vet, like that I lost my leg in Iraq or Afghanistan, and they’re like, super stoked to congratulate me on my patriotism… and then it’s like ‘oh, cancer.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so sad.’ People are always like, ‘Oh, that’s so sad’ as if there was like, gonna be a happy explanation… You know what I mean? Like, like, I don’t know what they thought I was gonna say like something. They’re like, Oh, man, what? That’s so great. What great news? But so what do people react like? Because your response is even heavier? Or like, how do you respond when people ask, oh, how’d you lose your leg, when you’re on the beach or whatever? Do you say what happened to your leg?

 

Rebekah:

I got blown up by a bomb with the Boston Marathon.

 

Josh:

What’s the emotional response from people?

 

Rebekah:

A lot of people cry. And a lot of people just I don’t know… strangers cry immediately. Yes.

 

Josh:

Wow. That is quite an effect to have on people Rebecca.

 

Rebekah:

I mean, it’s heavy. And that’s why I say you know, the majority of us will never get blown up by bomb but everyone has live blow up in their face… because I do believe that and I believe that we all have our crosses to bear. And there’s a lot of times where I just kind of want to say something a little easier than that. But I made the mistake of that one time where I was talking to a little girl and I thought that the bombing would be a little bit too much to say. So I said, Well, I didn’t eat my vegetables.

 

Josh:

That’s awesome. I love it.

 

Rebekah:

Oh, these like tears coming down her face… So yeah, I haven’t.

 

Josh:

So it was worse. It was scarier than a bomb. [laughter] Well, then what’s next? What do you say after that? What’s always the next question to an adult? Like a lot of you said I got blown up in the bombing. What’s the next question? Usually? How do you still continue?

 

Rebekah:

I think that probably and a lot of like, how can you remain so happy? And to me, I was three feet away from something that should have not only killed me, but my son, my five-year-old son that was sitting down on my feet. So my body was essentially a shield for him and he walked away. So anything that I have to go through, I mean it, it’s gratefulness, you know, and I do believe that there is a bigger plan and a purpose for our lives. So I kind of just try to share that with whoever may need it.

 

Josh:

Yeah, you might find you might say that sometimes that purpose comes from pain. Do you ever feel like ‘I don’t feel like talking through this or having this person potentially cry in front of me?’ And then do you have like a shorter version or a less scary one?

 

Rebekah:

Honestly, I really don’t.

 

Josh:

Every time it’s like… blowing up in the Boston Marathon bombing?

 

Rebekah:

Yep. Every time. Because I feel like if my story can help someone else through whatever they’re going through, I may not know the impact… but I want to know at the end of every single day that I tried to do that, so it’s exhausting. Especially if I get stopped somewhere and I’m just like trying to run errands or something like that, but I, for the most part, am very willing to share because I just feel like that’s what we need.

 

Okay, and I’m taking back my podcasts here, Josh.

 

Josh:

Go ahead. Yeah, sorry. I was just curious.

 

Rebekah:

Oh, this is awesome.

 

Josh:

It’s just interesting. It’s just a really different story. As far as being an amputee… so I’m sort of curious it’s just a lot of like, emotional weight.

 

Rebekah:

But so my question to you is has humor always been a part of this for you? Like ever since you were a little and this happened or was it something that you had to develop as time went on?

 

Josh:

Yeah, the latter. I mean, yeah, it wasn’t like funny right away, obviously. That’s something I would not prescribe necessarily to every amputee. Some amputees… they wake up from surgery and take hilarious photos in their hospital bed and dm them to me, and they’re very funny. But, you know, most people it’s like, a lot. It’s very sad. And that’s how it was for me. I think maybe like the first glimpse of humor that I had was about six weeks after the amputation. I had been fitted for an artificial leg, which I wore most of the time. And I was in the hospital for chemotherapy treatment. And a medical student tried to take my pulse, like from, like, from my artificial leg, like from the ankle on the fake leg, and it was just like very funny. In smaller things.. everyday things.. the stressful things or people being annoying… when possible, I prefer to find humor in that, you know, to make fun of them rather than to get angry at them. Because it just seems better. Just seems more pleasant, healthier.

 

Rebekah:

Yeah. If you have a lot more fun in life if you choose to laugh through your circumstances. It’s funny, Josh because the first time that I saw you, I saw a video on YouTube and it was your movie theater skit, and that you were talking about having the two-liter in your leg and how it was swinging around and nobody could say anything to you because what could they say? And yeah, I love that because I think that it normalizes disabilities a little bit more in terms of people can approach you about it and that’s what I want to be.. approachable and I want people to ask those questions and be more normal than these eyes on you like, ‘Oh my gosh, some kind of alien.’

 

Josh:

Yeah, I think people always gonna stare, I think, you know, because it’s like, it’s never going to be normal. You know, unless, you know, I mean, unless there’s like a giant evolutionary leap. And people commonly have, you know, most people have one leg, like, obviously, you and I are always going to be abnormal in our appearance. You know, maybe through humor and exposure to videos or books or characters in movies or whatever, who looked different. It can be like less scary to people or, you know, they may create like less dramatic responses from people. But, it’s always going to look different. Right?

 

Rebekah:

One thing is not like the other. Yeah. So was it your dream or your goal to become an inspirational speaker and a comedian and all of these things that you’ve become? Because, you look at your life now, and people automatically think that you’ve got every part of it together. You’re very successful. I just want to look into that a little bit more. And do you feel like you have accomplished everything that you want to do and what does the future look like what are you hoping to accomplish?

 

Josh:

Well, that was a very multifaceted question. As far as the first part did, I think that I was going to grow up to become this. I mean, of course, before I had cancer, no child, no child is like, ‘Oh, do you want to be when you grew up?’ and the child’s like, ‘I want to be an inspiration.’ Professionally, though, I want to inspire people on stages. So yeah, it wasn’t till I was a teenager that kind of realized I could be a speaker. And at that time, I didn’t even really realize that I had an interesting life story. I just was really interested in motivational speaking like as a concept or a career. So that was when I got interested in speaking. So yeah, it’s like a thing that I wanted to become. There’s other things I’ve done, like, comedy and writing books and such. So those are, of course, things that I wanted and set out to do very specifically. Yeah, I’ve always been interested in stand up comedy. That’s just something I’ve done in the last few years. I mean, three years ago, I started doing stand up, like proper standup. It’s just been last few years, which has been cool and fun and interesting. And then as far as like the other the other part is, do I feel like I’ve accomplished everything that I want to do? And what’s the future hold?

To be honest, I do feel like I’ve accomplished a lot of things that I really wanted to do. I always really want it to be published and I’ve been published, like three times. I really wanted to go to the Paralympics and I went to the Paralympics. For a long time, I really thought it would be cool to have more than a million followers. And I do. It’s pretty cool. It sounds as cool as you think. Yeah, I don’t know. There’s lots of things I could say like, these things I want to do. And I’ve done a lot of those things. So, which is cool. There are things of course that I would still like to do. But yeah, what is the future hold? I don’t know. I’m definitely not as like obsessively goal-oriented as I was when I was younger.

When I went to I went to the Paralympics. I don’t think we’ve established that I went to the Paralympics, fun fact, as a ski racer in 2006. So sometimes, you know, people will ask something along the lines of like, what does it take to go to the Olympics, and I would say it takes a pretty serious personality disorder… [laughter].

You have to really be kinda like deluded into thinking, ‘wow, if I go to the Olympics,’ or ‘if I win a medal’, then whatever, you have to think like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be happy forever,’ and it’s gonna bring me untold wealth and fame or whatever… whatever you think it’s going to do, it’s not going to do that. But you have to think that it will and think that those things are so important that you should sacrifice years and years of your life to training for this one moment in this one competition, that you might even get injured like the day before.

So I’m not saying that I’m disappointed. I went to the Paralympics, it was cool. It was something I really wanted to do. I’m very proud that I got to do it. But like looking back, I’m like, wow, that was really hard. It was so much work. And so yeah, I don’t know. It’s not necessarily a path I would recommend to all people…

So I didn’t think I was going to make the Paralympics going into the final season. I was a good skier… I wasn’t an amazing racer, I didn’t win a lot of races or whatever. And I was literally the last person named to the team. They’re gonna take the top 20 people, I was number 20. I barely made it. I was shocked. My coach was shocked. Everyone was shocked. I was trying to get there, I just didn’t think I was going to. And so when I went to the Paralympics, then I didn’t really think I was gonna win any medals… I really didn’t. I didn’t go in with the expectation, ‘oh, man, I’ve got to win a medal.’ It was like, there is NO chance I was gonna win a medal. And furthermore, I didn’t even think that I was going to make it. So I just felt very surprised and grateful to be there. I wasn’t really focused on the outcome. And so I would say, my current, like where I’m trying to develop as a person now is to have that same mentality in my everyday life. In other words, not being so obsessed with medals or outcomes. But instead of being very grateful to be here.

 

Rebekah:

I’m glad that you said that because as soon as that came out of your mouth, I was like, bam, that’s what it is. It’s like you can concentrate on so much in life… and you can have all of these goals and plans and dreams and that part’s great… but if you don’t have gratitude for what you already have right now, it’s like none of those things really matter, and they won’t mean as much.

Tune in to the episode to hear the rest of my incredible interview with Josh Sundquist! Learn more about Josh, his performances, speaking and books by visiting https://joshsundquist.com/

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