Bountiful native Paralympian Nicole Roundy found freedom, passion in snowboarding
joe kusumoto photography
Editor's note: This is the third in a series of articles profiling the Utah athletes who are competing in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, this month.
BOUNTIFUL — Nicole Roundy loved the idea of three-track skiing.
“But I didn’t like the limitations,” said the Bountiful resident, one of six Utahns competing in the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi this week. “I was 16, and I just wanted to be independent. I wanted to do everything by myself. I saw snowboarding, and I thought, ‘I should be able to do that.’”
But when she asked about it, she was told it would be impossible for her.
Roundy lost her right leg above the knee when she was 8 years old in a battle against bone cancer (osteogenic sarcoma).
“I can remember certain things,” she said of her fight with cancer. “I remember most of the positive, happy things. My mom and siblings remember the hard stuff.”
The youngest of six children, Roundy wanted anything other than being babied. Without a knee, prosthetics only allowed her about a 20-degree bend in her leg. She tried basketball, volleyball and other adaptive sports when she was young.
“I tried to be involved as best I could, but I was always too slow,” she said. “I always got tired before everyone else. So I was the benched athlete or the water girl. I tried, but I just couldn’t keep up."
Which makes it a bit ironic that she’ll compete in one of the fastest, most exciting racing sports on snow — snowboard cross. But just getting a shot at snowboarding took a special kind of determination.
“They said, ‘Oh, you’re missing your knee, and you’ll never be able to do that,'” she said of the response she got when she asked about snowboarding the first time. “Or, if you do it, you’ll never be good at it. I actually had to wait for two years. We were waiting for somebody to give me a chance. There weren’t any prosthetics you could use at the time for snowboarding.”
Roundy was introduced to skiing and snowboarding through a camp at Shriners Hospital. While she enjoyed three-track skiing, she wanted something that she could do on her own, something that didn’t require her to take off her prosthetic. She saw snowboarding as that opportunity, but it took her time — and the determined innovation of someone else before she could even try snowboarding.
Jarem Frye, who grew up in Utah and now lives in Oregon, also lost a leg to childhood cancer, and he also got his start on three-track skiing. But because of his desire to try other sports, like telemark skiing, he started trying to modify his own prosthetic with automotive valves and shock absorbers. Finally, with the help of a machining student at BYU, he developed a prototype in 2000 that allowed him enough mobility to turn almost as if he had two legs. Once he moved to Oregon in 2006, he started a company called Symbiotechs USA, which is when Roundy found his creation.
When she finally got her chance in 2006, she didn’t look back. She also didn’t have to worry about being compared to anyone else. Roundy became the first above-the-knee amputee to compete in snowboarding.
“The great thing about snowboarding was that there was nobody else doing it,” she said. “So whether I was good or not, it didn’t matter. I think it was kind of exciting to be the first person to take something and actually compete.”
Her first moments on a snowboard, she admits, were promising to no one but her.
“I had a lot of bruises everywhere,” she laughed. “I just kept getting back up and doing it again because it was so fun. It comes with a little bit of adrenaline, and you need an inner sense of determination.”
Roundy said the freedom of being on her own and unhindered by anything except her own fear was a turning point in her life. She started competing in local races against able-bodied athletes. It wasn’t until 2009 that she started to consider Paralympic dreams.
“That was the first time I took it seriously,” she said. “I went to New Zealand and did a World Cup, and it was that that point that I said, “Yeah, I really want to be able to go to the Paralympics. I want to see this sport succeed.’”
At the time, snowboarding wasn’t included in the Paralympic program. She said that until the sport was embraced by the Paralympic movement, finding financial support was extremely difficult.
“Until you reach that Paralympic level, the support and the funding just really isn’t there,” she said.
The same year she got serious about snowboarding, she met her husband at a coffee shop.
“I was there studying for school, and he was there with some friends,” she said, laughing again. “He sat next to me and started talking. I wasn’t listening. When I finally did pay attention to him, he said, ‘Can I have your number?’ We got married last June in Park City.”
Balancing marriage and the pursuit of elite competition is tough, but she said they are making the best of it. She heads to Sochi after winning a bronze in Spain a few weeks ago.
“I’d really like to be able to do that again,” she said.
She works for Backcountry.com — an employer that's extremely supportive of outdoor athletic endeavors.
“Going to a traditional job wasn’t really a good option,” she said. While she continued to improve, she watched athletes come and go as the sport fought for inclusion.
“There’s been a lot of people come and gone and who didn’t make it to this point,” she said of making the 2014 U.S. team. “There’s been injuries, life changes, people getting married and moving on with their lives.”
The group has swelled and shrunk a couple of times, but she hopes with the exposure promised by the 2014 games, the ranks will reach record numbers.
“The biggest thing we get (out of being included) is that we get people excited about the sport,” she said. “It would push it to where we haven’t been able to on our own. We want people to see there are no limitations.”
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