Max Ellingson's cerebral palsy puts him at a disadvantage at times.

But when he mounts his bike to race, Max turns his intensity up a gear.

"It's like you can't tell that he has a disability," said his mother, Sue Ellingson.

Max is a captain of Edina High School's mountain biking team and a passionate racer — an identity that he and his family put before his disability.

The dirt trails have been a haven for the junior, who competes at a high level thanks to a surgery he had at age 10 that rotated his legs outward.

"It really just secludes you and gets you in this zone where you're not really thinking about anything else," Max said of mountain biking. "It's really peaceful."

Max's surgery was elective, but doctors said it would greatly improve his legs and prevent future complications such as arthritis.

The Ellingsons found Dr. Stephen Sundberg, one of the nation's top doctors for the procedure. Sundberg performed the surgery successfully.

The years after Max's surgery included physical therapy to retrain his muscles. The first summer was particularly difficult, as Max needed a wheelchair and wore a cast.

"He had to kind of learn how to walk again," said his dad, John Ellingson.

John Ellingson said they would take Max out in public while he was in a wheelchair, and when people asked about his condition, he and Max would invent a story — that he had broken both legs, for example.

"We wouldn't joke all the time," John Ellingson added.

When Max was able to resume activities, his dad introduced mountain biking. The sport has racing elements akin to skiing and go-kart racing, which Max had tried when he was younger.

His first few races were tough, but he quickly fell in love with the sport. John Ellingson said he could tell the sport was a good fit after Max earned a top-three finish at a race.

Max had tried traditional sports when he was younger, but his balance and coordination weren't up to par.

"He could do all the sports," Sue Ellingson said, "but he just couldn't be competitive."

Max has to work harder to compete in mountain biking because his body consumes more oxygen than the average person. He does this by stretching and keeping his legs active regularly.

"Every child needs something to be good at, and [mountain biking] was just something that Max seemed to kind of excel at," Sue Ellingson said. "So we kind of went with it."

Max finished sixth out of 85 racers in Minnesota's junior varsity division of mountain biking last year. During the summer, he races in the Minnesota Mountain Bike Series. The high school season starts in the fall.

He also works at Penn Cycle bike shop, where he is learning how to build and fix bikes. He's applied those skills to his leadership at Edina, helping his teammates fix their bikes.

"The downside is he keeps asking me for bikes," John Ellingson said. He's got a nice mountain bike; he's got a road bike. Our garage is full of bikes."

John Ellingson estimated that the Ellingsons have 10 bikes in their garage. His younger brother and younger sister also race.

One success among many

Max's success is common among children with cerebral palsy, according to his doctor, Marshall Taniguchi.

Dr. Taniguchi is a pediatric rehabilitation medicine physician at Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul. He has guided Max through his physical therapy since the surgery.

"These are families who are really seeking out, 'What can I do for my kid? How can we improve their quality of life?' " Dr. Taniguchi said. "I'm totally humbled by the kids and the families that I see."

Max's attitude separates him from others.

"There's things that we would consider to be disabilities," Dr. Sundberg said. "Max has sort of said, 'No, I'm going to just keep doing everything I can possibly do to maximize my ability to stay fit and enjoy life.' "

Charlie Armitz is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.