It was such a trying and intense day, and to be able to walk away successful is huge. —Brenna Huckaby
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — As Brenna Huckaby stood in the start gate of her first Paralympic snowboardcross race, she whispered a reminder into the wind.
“For Lilah,” she said, referring to her 20-month-old daughter, who was on her mind before the first-time Paralympian won gold in the snowboardcross finals at the Phoenix Freestyle Park. “Because that is one of the main reasons (she competes). And pushing through trying times to show here that she can do anything that she wants. It was hard today, but I just reminded myself why I do this, and it’s for her. That helped.”
As for winning her first Paralympic gold, the Salt Lake transplant summed it up pretty succinctly, “It’s incredible.”
Huckaby’s first gold wasn’t without challenges. But the 22-year-old former gymnast, who lost her leg to osteosarcoma treatment complications in 2010, has built her life on her ability to adapt.
The Baton Rouge native and her mom moved to Utah after she began snowboarding with Park City’s National Ability Center. She received her first prosthetic leg a month after her amputation surgery, and she resisted suggestions that she take up skiing in favor of snowboarding.
She may have been introduced to the sport as part of a rehabilitation program, but she quickly found a new passion to pursue and in 2013, she began competing. She earned her first international podiums in 2014, and her only break from the sport was in early 2016 when she gave birth to her daughter.
Monday’s snowboardcross finals were delayed when the starting gate broke. For some athletes it was unnerving, but Huckaby said it gave her time to calm her nerves.
“It was such a trying and intense day,” she said, “and to be able to walk away successful is huge. Honestly, (the gate issue) helped me. I was able to reset and get my focus and remember to have fun. We were all at the top watching and chatting and just keeping it real.”
She edged her teammate Amy Purdy, who gained fame on “Dancing with the Stars” after she won bronze in the same event in the Sochi Olympics. The women were part of a huge day for Team USA, as they earned six snowboarding medals.
Huckaby said she wasn’t worried about racing against Purdy, who co-founded the Adaptive Action Sports group in 2005 and was instrumental in getting the sport added to the Paralympic program in 2014.
“Regardless, (Team) USA was walking away with a gold and a silver, so I was stoked,” she said. “My main focus was to make this like any other race. When I came out here this morning and saw the set-up and the people in the stands, I panicked. It was really frustrating because I wanted to maintain that positive energy and this morning (qualifications) didn’t go the way I wanted it to. To be able to turn that around and come back stronger is something I can’t even put into words. I’m so happy and honestly, so relieved.”
As she crossed the finish line, she saw her mother cheering, and it was a powerful reminder of how much love and support she has enjoyed as she pursued her sport.
“My mom has never seen me race,” Huckaby said. “And she’s been at every other gymnastics meet of mine growing up, so it was hard not having her there because she’s one of my biggest fans. When I saw her after I crossed the finish line, and she was jumping up and down, my heart just burst. I was so happy.”
Huckaby’s hard work to get to the Paralympic podium was as much about reclaiming her life and redefining who she is, as it was about succeeding as an elite athlete.
“I can’t put it into words,” she said. “I felt so much love after I crossed the finish line and heard the cheering from the crowd. I felt relieved because I’ve worked so hard for this for so long, and it paid off. It just feels really good.” Asked what advice she’d offer to others who are struggling to find a new path in life, she didn’t hesitate.
“Things happen in life and can get you down,” she said. “But it’s how you respond to it. Always come back fighting and come back stronger.”