Alumnus Josh Sundquist reflects on experience writing, filming “Best Foot Forward,” passion stemmed from school newspaper position

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Photo courtesy of Ashley Sundquist

Josh Sundquist and Logan Marmino pose together. “All of my cast members and even the crew members, everybody was amazing. It definitely made the experience of being on set a lot more enjoyable and much better, especially since it was my first time,” Marmino said.

Kasey Thompson, Yearbook Editor in Chief

Imagine getting to watch your childhood play out on a screen, to witness your core memories from a new perspective.

Alumnus, author and paralympic athlete Josh Sundquist got this opportunity. His life, beginning his freshman year at Harrisonburg High School, was recreated into an Apple TV show called, “Best Foot Forward.” The show was released this past summer after four months of filming in Los Angeles, California. 

The show itself is based off of Sundquist’s experience as an amputee growing up. He lost his leg at age nine to a bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma. One of the bigger purposes of “Best Foot Forward” for Sundquist was being able to represent a character that most kids with disabilities don’t see on screen. 

“Overall the show is about Josh’s firsts. Josh’s first time being in public school, first time being on a public school sports team and his first time going to the movies without parents. We want to show that story and just an eager, enthusiastic and smart kid, but also through the unique lens of a kid who happens to have one leg, which is a character that I never got to see on TV growing up. That’s an aspect of the show that I’m incredibly proud of and excited about. Kids who are growing up now who may happen to have some sort of difference, finally have a show that they can turn on and see someone who looks like them. It is really exciting,” Sundquist said. 

Sunquist was homeschooled through the end of eighth grade, however, the show was made to target a younger audience therefore Josh starts attending public school in middle school. Despite these small differences, the storyline is lined up with Sundquist’s real experiences that are also recounted in his books. 

“It is technically inspired by my first book called ‘Just Don’t Fall.’ That is a story about my childhood, growing up in Harrisonburg and then losing my leg to cancer. [Also], when I was in high school, I became a ski racer and eventually raced in the Paralympics, so that’s what the book is about. The show is actually really only based on one chapter of the book, which is my transition from homeschool to public schools, specifically my transition to Harrisonburg High School,” Sundquist said. “It started [when] a production company contacted me a couple of years ago, and they read [my] book and were interested in doing a show about that and wanted it to be a family comedy. I just really liked the idea, I thought it made a lot of sense as a show.”

skiing
Sundquist raced in the Paralympics after training throughout high school. “I was like, if I want to go to the Paralympics four years from now, I need to get as much training as possible. After first semester in December, I moved to Colorado and trained full time for the rest of the ski season. I basically missed half of my senior year,” Sundquist said. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Sundquist)

Sundquist’s high school life was different from other students in more ways than one. When he was a junior his dream to go to the Paralympics for Alpine ski racing became serious which led him to miss part of his senior year. Four years later, he went on to compete on the US alpine ski team in the Paralympics.

“I was like, if I want to go to the Paralympics four years from now, I need to get as much training as possible. After first semester in December, I moved to Colorado and trained full time for the rest of the ski season. I basically missed half of my senior year,” Sundquist said.

The events in the first few episodes of the Apple TV series are almost exactly accurate to Sundquist’s memories of early life at Harrisonburg High School. From there, episodes were created around one real event from Sundquist’s high school life. 

“In the first episode, Josh persuades his parents that he wants to start going to public school for the first time. Josh memorizes the yearbook, which I really did. I got my friend Ken Barnes’ eighth grade yearbook from Thomas Harrison [Middle School and] I memorized everyone’s name and face, so that on the first day I can say ‘hi’ to everyone, by name. I really did that and we really do that in the show. Also, I wore a prosthetic leg to school pretty much every day all through high school. On my first day, there was an upperclassman who saw me limping and deliberately tripped me, which was actually the only real bullying I ever experienced in the whole four years,” Sundquist said. “In episode two, Josh gets an elevator key. Which I really did because I was disabled. I quickly found that people really wanted to pile into the elevator with me, but I was a very strict rule follower and I knew you could only bring one other student with you. So, it really stressed me out. I just stopped using the elevator. We made an episode about that, but in the episode Josh’s friends have to concoct a scheme to make other kids not want to ride the elevator anymore. That’s kind of a model example from the series where we take a thing that was real in my life that we think is funny or interesting as writers and then we’ll say, ‘How do we make this work in a 20 minute television episode?.’”

I am now able to be a role model for the amputee community and the disability community, and able to spread more awareness because of the show.”

— Logan Marmino

Sundquist’s career in storytelling did not just begin, he discovered this passion for making a difference through media when he joined the school newspaper, the Newsstreak, his freshman year. He became co-editor in chief as a junior and continued to write columns, as training for the Paralympics pulled him away from in-person school. Many of the skills that have helped him succeed and get to the place he is today, he credits to what he learned in the newsroom environment.

newsstreak shirt
Alumnus Josh Sundquist wearing a Newsstreak shirt in high school. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Sundquist)

“I started Newsstreak when I was a freshman, it doesn’t show up in the show, but it was actually one of the main reasons I wanted to transfer to public school [and] to go to Harrisonburg. I really wanted to be on a school paper. I was really interested in journalism and writing. There were lots of classes in high school that I learned things that are useful things to know, but there is no class in which I learned more things that are specifically career applicable and more useful in an adult world than in newspaper class because you’re running an actual business,” Sundquist said. “Today, I give motivational speeches, but the reality is, I sell motivational speeches. I talk to clients and try to convince them to hire me to be their speaker, which is just like selling ads [for the newspaper], just a different product. Also, working with people in a formal position of leadership, I was class president [and] I was SCA Vice President one time, which was cool, but it’s more like you’re organizing activities whereas as an editor of the paper, I was leading people. I actually had a formal position in which I was making decisions, assigning tasks, overseeing, providing encouragement and corrective feedback to other human beings, which is just an incredibly useful life skill. [It’s] one that I employed as an executive producer on the show, I’ve been self employed pretty much my whole adult life, so being editor in chief of the paper was one of the few times in my life that I had sort of a formal position of authority or leadership up until being executive producer of the show.” 

One of the challenges going into the creation of “Best Foot Forward” was finding the right actor to play Sundquist in middle school. One of the major requirements for the role, according to Sundquist, was that the actor actually wear a prosthetic leg. 

“We found this amazing boy to play Josh, his name is Logan Marmino. He was 11 when we cast him and started shooting. He’d never acted before, he lives in New Jersey. We did a big casting call, it was a very precise thing we needed. Logan was really the standout, but he’d never acted. He kind of auditioned on a whim, he had never been interested in acting, never did a school play or anything. It was just this incredible, undiscovered talent and we’re very glad that he was willing to move out with his mom for four months to film the show last fall,” Sundquist said. “He’s a really cool kid. He is a lot like me personality wise, he’s a really good athlete [too]. He holds multiple national records in adaptive track and field, he plays on an able bodied baseball team, which means he’s the only one legged kid on the team, but the fastest kid on the team.”

motivational speech
Josh Sundquist now gives motivational speeches. “I was interested in working in the entertainment industry, but then I decided that I wanted to just keep motivational speaking. I started [that] in high school,” Sundquist said. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Sundquist)
For Sundquist, meeting Logan Marmino was almost like meeting a younger version of himself. 

“I actually got to play a minor character in the series, I play Josh’s prosthetist, which is the person who makes his prosthetic legs. I got to do scenes in the show where I’m talking to Josh and giving him advice. I got to have this very surreal experience of giving advice to my 12 year old self saying, ‘I know how it feels to be you, here’s my advice,’ which was a really cool and a wild experience. To have such an impressive kid portray me on screen was just a huge honor,” Sundquist said. 

For Marmino, it was even more of an honor. He had followed Sundquist on social media, looking to him as a role model, for years before getting the part of Josh on “Best Foot Forward.” Stepping into the role was not difficult for Marmino as an amputee himself. 

“Matt, the main writer of the show, did such a good job of really capturing everything that an amputee really goes through. Being able to act like Josh was being able to just be myself because a lot of the core moments in the show are things that I’ve already gone through,” Marmino said. 

Despite not having past experience in the world of entertainment, Marmino jumped for the role with the intention of representing a figure that isn’t portrayed on the big screen often. 

“I never had any prior acting experience and I wasn’t looking to act. What made me really want to be a part of this project was just to spread awareness. That was my number one goal,” Marmino said. “I am now able to be a role model for the amputee community and the disability community, and able to spread more awareness because of the show. Being able to meet so many amputees and people with disabilities, it hasn’t just made an impact on me, it’s definitely made an impact on everybody else with a disability and everybody else that are amputees.” 

josh & logan
Josh Sundquist and Logan Marmino often dressed the same on the set of “Best Foot Forward.” (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Marmino)

His role in “Best Foot Forward” has helped Marmino make major steps in motivational speaking and becoming a figure for amputee and disability awareness. 

“Josh has already been a very big motivational speaker and comedian, he’s already been out there, especially on social media. So, being able to also be a big influence in kids lives with disabilities has just been an honor. Even tomorrow, I’m going to different schools to talk about disability awareness,” Marmino said. “I’ve done it before the show, but now that the show is out, I get to be a big part in amputee awareness. It’s amazing, I’m so honored that I can be that person.”

Kids who are growing up now who may happen to have some sort of difference, finally have a show that they can turn on and see someone who looks like them. It is really exciting”

— Josh Sundquist

Over 20% of the cast and crew of the series had a disability. Because of this, Marmino felt the script and show itself truly captured the realities of being a person with a disability.  

“It was a very disability safe environment. It just made it so much of a better experience,” Marmino said. “My biggest takeaway from being on the show and acting like Josh was [to] not let anyone tell you what you can and can’t do.”

Sundquist is proud to bring representation to the screen and for more kids to be able to see someone on TV that looks like them. 

“Growing up, I really don’t think I ever saw any one legged people on any shows or movies, much less a show about and starring an actual kid with one leg. Even now, in most recent shows with disabled characters, only 4-5% are actually played by disabled actors. So even the rare times when you do see an amputee character, it’s actually generally an able bodied person playing the role,” Sundquist said. “To not only have an amputee character, but also an amputee actor playing him, I think it’s an important step forward for disability representation on screen and I’m really proud to be part of that.”