Sports

This Paralympics Snowboarding Champion Is Using Her Gold Medals To Change The Conversation About Disabled People

by Anya Alvarez

April 3, 2018
Paralympian gold medal winner Brenna Huckaby. Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

Brenna Huckaby, 22, went to the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang with one goal in mind: to win the gold. Standing on the top of the mountain with her snowboard, she felt she had done everything to prep for the games. And the American snowboarder, who would compete in the snowboard cross and banked slalom, was ready.

I knew if I could train hard enough, I could do it. I also knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Huckaby says. According to her, her biggest competitor, France’s Cécile Hernandez, would certainly push her to perform at the top of her game.

“I put my focus on the task at hand and let placement work itself out later,” Huckaby says of mentally preparing for her debut at the Winter Paralympics. That focus led Huckaby to a place on the podium, realizing her dream had come true: She was a champion who would be taking home two gold medals.

Huckaby’s journey to the top wasn’t easy. As a young girl, she was a nationally ranked gymnast, but when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 14, her right leg had to be amputated. Afterward, Huckaby went through a mourning period where she had to accept that her life would no longer be the same.

It wasn’t until a few months after I finished treatment that the reality of what had happened sank in,” Huckaby says. “I realized that my life as it used to be was no longer an option. I wasn’t afraid I wouldn’t compete again; I was afraid I wasn’t going to be happy again.”

In a quest to help their daughter find her spark again, her parents signed her up for different activities and sports. “I had an open mind to any and all possibilities of what I could do. I knew my two-legged life was over, but I also knew it was only the beginning of whatever I wanted to be from there on out,” she recalls.

What led her to eventually become a Paralympian? A rehabilitation ski trip arranged by a doctor from her hospital for child cancer patients who had undergone amputation.

We have a focus on body positivity, but we haven’t put a ton of focus on disabilities.

As soon as Huckaby strapped into the snowboard, she fell in love, despite the challenging nature of the sport.

Of her first time snowboarding, she says:

“I was awful at it! I could barely stand up, much less snowboard. But I loved the challenge of not being good at something. I loved the freedom to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The baby steps of being successful is what I craved when it came to snowboarding. When I would ride down a foot further than the first time it was so satisfying, I wanted more! I was hooked on progression then just as I still am today.”

Her mother, Kirstie, saw how snowboarding had transformed her daughter. Soon after, Kirstie and her husband Jeff took Huckaby on another ski trip, knowing snowboarding would play an integral role in their daughter’s life if she could do it regularly. With that realization, they packed their bags and moved from Louisiana to the mountainous state of Utah.

Huckaby says of the move, “We had no intentions of me being a competitive snowboarder at the time. The focus was solely on my happiness and quality of life. I guess when a passion is so strong only amazing things can come out of it.”

In 2017, just five years after trying snowboarding for the first time, Huckaby became a world champion in both snowboard-cross and banked slalom. That experience made her realize she wanted more, like winning gold at the 2018 Winter Paralympics.

Before achieving that, though, Huckaby broke down another barrier: She became the first amputee to be featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.

By posing for the magazine, she explains, “I wanted to show the world [that] beauty has no barrier. No matter who you are or what you look like, you are sexy and powerful. You have a voice and the power to do whatever you want with your life. That was a part of my message — not only for others but for myself.” 

As a result, she thinks being part of the swimsuit issue will help reshape how society discusses body positivity. “We are in an amazing time where we have a focus on body positivity, but we haven’t put a ton of focus on disabilities,” she notes. “I think SI opened the door for bigger things for women and men with disabilities.”

As a world champion and Paralympic gold medalist, Huckaby’s also hoping that her success will show people the possibilities of adaptive sport and help adaptive sports become more mainstream. “The sport has grown so much in the last four years, and I think with the amount of media we have received in South Korea, we will grow even more before [the 2022 Winter Paralympics in] Beijing,” she told me.

Now, after coming home the Paralympics, Huckaby’s taking some time to enjoy this year’s hard-earned rewards. But this time off doesn’t mean she isn’t plotting out her next steps. 

“This year has been amazing,” she says. “I couldn’t have asked for more, but I always see room for growth. I am not sure what that looks like, but I will take advantage of all the opportunities that may come! I believe if I continue to put effort into bettering myself and my life only positive things will happen.”  

Share image by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images.

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