Brenna Huckaby, 26, is a seven-time para-snowboard gold medalist and two-time Paralympian. She lost her right leg to a rare form of bone cancer in 2010 at the age of 14. After spending her youth as a gymnast, Huckaby took up snowboarding because it reminded her of being on the balance beam. A year later, she won her first world championship.
Huckaby is designated as an LL1 athlete, which includes above-knee amputees. She has spent over a year fighting to compete in the less disabled LL2 class which includes below-knee amputees. This is a practice known as “competition”, where an athlete joins a classification considered more difficult. It is allowed in other sports, including Paralympic Summer Games events and other snowboarding events. Huckaby has successfully competed in other events in his career.
In his own words, Huckaby recounts the incredibly tight race for gold in Beijing and the long battle for the right to compete in the Games. As she just learned after returning to the United States, this is a battle that is not over yet.
THE MOMENT THAT I I realized gold was within reach when I looked up at the board after my first run in the incline slalom and saw that I was just 0.08 seconds away from the first. square. Because I was competing in a higher class, the women are faster, they are stronger, they are more capable. But I never imposed limits on myself, whatever my competition.
I was coming off of tough days of competition in the snowboardcross event. In addition to crashing in a practice session, I fell behind at the start of the run in the semi-finals – I was initially so late to the field that the film crew didn’t let me know. didn’t even film when I was able to catch up and finish second, which put me in the final. Then, in the final, there was a collision with another rider. Despite the pain, I was able to stay the course, get up and continue. I recovered enough to win bronze at home, and I’m really proud of that, although I was also disappointed that I couldn’t get first or second place.
I’m human, so doubt or negativity pops up from time to time, but I’ve worked very hard in therapy over the past four years to understand the root of those doubts. When they sneak up and I tell myself that I’m not good enough or that I don’t deserve it, I have to remind myself that it’s a lie. After the snowboardcross final and before the banked slalom, I had a day to mentally recharge and rest my body. I journaled my experience, which helped me process what I was going through. I thought to myself I know what to do. I know how to snowboard. I had to trust my body and my board and not focus on what could go wrong, but on what had gone well so far.
So in this last run for the banked slalom, I decided to just let my snowboard go – full send. At the time, I thought, “If I miss this class, I don’t care.” The whole race was just about to feel out of control. It was so much fun, but it wasn’t my best because I spent most of it saving myself from an accident.
I crossed the finish line and saw my name up there, but the results weren’t processed for me. I asked if I was even on the podium, and my fellow Team USA competitor said, “Man, you win.” There was only one athlete left after my last race, but I held on to first place. Second and third place were only a fraction of a second behind my time.
As I stood on stage and heard the US national anthem play and felt the weight of the medal around my neck, I couldn’t help but think, “We did it. It really wasn’t just my victory, but the entire snowboarding community. Everyone who supported me in my fight to even be on the snow at these Paralympic Games. The journey up to this time was long and the burden was heavy. But so many people have carried a little piece of that burden by my side to help lighten its weight.
For over a year, I struggled to compete after the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) declared me ineligible. They decided that my class (LL1) did not meet their viability standards and canceled our class’ medal events. I asked to compete in either the female LL2 class or the male LL1 class, although either class would be more difficult for me. Their decision to decline both options came as a shock to me. In the end, I was forced to challenge the IPC’s decision in a German court. (IPC headquarters are in Bonn, Germany.)
At the end of January, the court ruled that the IPC’s decision to exclude me from the Games because of my disability was illegal and that I should be allowed to compete in Beijing. I thought that was the end of the fight. I was proud of what we had achieved and went on to win the bronze and gold medals, proving that my disability shouldn’t stop me from competing. But I was wrong.
I left Beijing so excited to see my husband and two daughters, who couldn’t be with me due to COVID restrictions. The Games experience was rewarding and triumphant, but there was also a specter of loneliness in not being able to embrace my family. When I landed in the States, all I wanted was to celebrate with them. I was finally able to check my e-mails and saw a message from my lawyer in Germany. He informed me that the IPC was taking further legal action, seeking to invalidate my participation in Beijing, which would deprive me of my medals.
I would like to say that I was shocked, but according to the IPC Statement after winning the case in a German court, I was not surprised. Impairment-based classifications exist to protect athletes and create a level playing field. But we weren’t asking for protection, we were asking to be competitive, even at a disadvantage. It’s hard to find people with significant disabilities to play the sports we play, so it’s like we’re being punished for being more disabled.
The struggle for inclusion continues, as it shows how much change still needs to happen. We deserve the opportunity to compete and the framework to move up to a tougher classification that exists in other sports and other para snowboarding events.
It’s been a tough fight, but there’s nothing I would change. Everything in my life has prepared me for this moment. I went through a lot of personal growth, learning to use my voice and express myself. I’ve always been afraid of standing out or going against the grain, and I’ve been working on that for four years since I competed in the Pyeongchang Games, where I won two gold medals . It couldn’t have come at a better time because I feel so ready to say what I need to say and make the changes I need to make.
I always tell myself that I have already won, no matter what. I have an amazing family, a support system, I am taken care of in so many ways. So no matter how things go, I constantly remind myself that I’ve already won.
I hope to have the chance to be a top athlete in the next games in Italy. No legal battles, no barriers to competition. It would have been easy this time not to pursue participation in Beijing and to think: “Well, I will try again at the next Games”. But I didn’t, because I knew this fight was bigger than me. I knew that if I was successful, it would help encourage other people with disabilities to use their voices and express themselves. I’m really proud of this fight for me, for the future, for inclusion, for sport, for people with disabilities. It was worth every second, and I wouldn’t change a thing. The fight continues, but I can’t wait to see the result.