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Walking the walk

Energetic member of Box Elder Search and Rescue doesn’t let lack of legs get in his way

TREMONTON, Box Elder County — Nathan Christensen was just one more volunteer in the crowd three weeks ago as the Box Elder County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team searched the banks of a local canal for a man believed to be drowned.

The six-mile canal proved greedy, forcing the team to walk up and down the canal for four hours before giving up its victim. When the team finally found the body, Christensen and the others were tired and ready to go home, sit back and put up their weary legs.

Actually, Christensen had an added option: He could go home and take his legs off and put them away altogether. It's about the only noticeable difference between Christensen and other members of his unit. And that's how he wants it to be.

"I've always tried to be just as normal as possible," Christensen said.

Nobody is sure why Christensen was born without legs 22 years ago, but the Tremonton man doesn't like to spend too much time wondering about it.

Instead, he spends his days fixing cars at the Soren Specialists automotive mechanic service and much of his off time scouring the wilderness as second captain of the county's search and rescue team, all with the help of prosthetic legs.

For two years, Christensen has volunteered for the team, and though he said it's "probably harder" for him than it would be for someone with two functioning natural legs, he said he will probably always do search and rescue, noting that he doesn't notice the increased difficulty because he's lived with it his entire life.

"They say when I walk, I use about 30 or 40 percent more energy," Christensen said.

But still, walk he does. He used that extra energy on the banks of the canal about two weeks ago. He and his search and rescue partner were also the first to arrive at an airplane July 22 that had made an emergency landing on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

He does all this walking on two prosthetic legs, similar to the ones he's had through the years, ever since he was 18 months old. His current legs are made of lightweight materials, including graphite and titanium, said prosthetist Jim Liston of Specialized Prosthetic and Orthoptic Technologies, or SPOT.

They're the "first thing I put on and the last thing I take off," Christensen said of his legs. Liston said prosthetic legs are custom made to fit each patient, and Christensen said he has spent many years teaching himself to get the most out of his pair.

But for anyone wondering why Christensen would be willing to expend all that extra energy — and the extra time it has taken him to be confident with his legs — doing search and rescue work, Christensen said it's simple: "I like helping people." He said he gets a kind of satisfaction from search and rescue that he couldn't get without the dedication it has taken.

The result of all that extra work has been not only Christensen's confidence in his own abilities but other people's confidence in him as well. He said no one has ever expressed concern that his legs would interfere in his work or that he would be unable to safely rescue someone in need.

"There's not a thing (Christensen) can't do," said chief deputy Lynn Yeates of the Box Elder County Sheriff's Office. "In fact, he's usually stronger than me."

Christensen has proven himself as an avid rappeller and member of the team's rope-climbing group. These abilities seem to fly in the face of some of the more dire predictions people have made for Christensen since he was young.

When Christensen was born, doctors told his mother he'd probably never be able to walk — and would certainly never be able to run.

"My mother always said my motivation was to prove her wrong," Christensen said.

So at a young age, he set out to do just that — prove all the naysaying wrong and show that he could do the things other kids could do.

Growing up in Delta, Christensen traveled to Salt Lake City once every month or two to have his legs checked out, worked on, repaired or replaced.

His first set of legs had no knee joint, and as he has only one working knee (what Liston calls part of his "residual limb"), he said he started out with a "peg leg."

Soon, however, his legs became more functional, complete with a bending knee that he could learn to manipulate. Christensen said he spent much of his young life jumping out of the back of a pickup truck to practice bending his knees.

Today Christensen has the highest strength legs they make. His legs are built to support up to 230 pounds. Christensen, who weighs 225, said he breaks his legs often.

But the risk of broken legs and sore back muscles has never stopped Christensen from coming when called and pulling his fair share — and then some.

Yeates said when the team is needed, Christensen is always one of the first ones on the scene.

"He's a good worker," Yeates said. "He's always dependable."

While he said he is impressed with Christensen's hard work and enjoys having him on the team, Yeates said that, in the end, there is nothing out of the ordinary about Christensen.

"I don't consider Nathan disabled," Yeates said.

Christensen and his wife, Krisanne, married last Oct. 8 and are expecting a son Aug. 22. He plans to continue working and volunteering for a long time.

He said he knows some people with prosthetic limbs who sometimes use it as an excuse to accomplish the bare minimum. Christensen said he has a hard time feeling sympathy for those people.

"For Nathan, that's just Nathan," Liston said of Christensen's desire to work hard. "It's just about who Nathan is as a person. To him, he's not extraordinary. To you or me he may be, but to him, he's just Nathan."

Because Christensen was born without legs, Liston said he has never really "known better." "That's the great thing about kids," he said.

This is not to say that the time Christensen spends on his feet has not been tough. With no leg muscles for support, Christensen said his back often hurts him, and legs that break with relative frequency are an inconvenience.

Still, Christensen dreams only of becoming more and more involved with search and rescue, a pleasant piece of news for people like Yeates, who calls Christensen "a very active and important part of our team."

In fact, Christensen said he would eventually like to be commander.

"Even if I move, I'll do my best to get on the (search and rescue) unit there," he said.

E-MAIL: dsmeath@desnews.com