This Bayou-Bred Snowboarding Mama Is the Face of 2018's Paralympic Games
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because your light may be at the end of a very surprising tunnel.
By Matt Foley
Brenna Huckaby doesn’t want to be your inspiration. Unless you really mean it.
“Every time I walk into a gym, someone is going to tell me I’m an inspiration,” says Huckaby, 22, a Paralympic snowboarder who has racked up three world titles during her brief career. “Sometimes it feels like a lot of people have nothing else to say.… But when it’s real inspiration, when someone who overcame a dark time tells me how I helped them, that reminds me why I’m doing this.”
What she’s doing, exactly, is dominating the para-snowboarding circuit just six years after first strapping onto a board. A star gymnast before losing her right leg to osteosarcoma, Huckaby was only 19 when she took the para-snowboarding scene by storm, with huge wins at the 2015 World Para Championships in both snowboard-cross (gold) and slalom (silver). She skipped the following season to give birth to her daughter, Lilah, and then the Salt Lake City–based shredder was back with a vengeance. At the 2017 World Para Championships, Huckaby went double gold, topping the podium in both events. Now, as the clear favorite heading to the Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Huckaby is busier than ever. Newly engaged, a full-time mother and part-time college student, she still finds the hours to train. Sure, she’s not getting much sleep, but she doesn’t seem concerned. “I have to work a lot harder, because I’m always tired,” admits Huckaby. “But it’s made me a stronger competitor.”
Growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Huckaby’s life was gymnastics, and she idolized Olympic champion Nastia Liukin — “the most badass gymnast” in the 2008 Games, she says. She was nationally ranked by age 14 with a college scholarship on the horizon, but while Huckaby’s pursuit of perfection brought early success, it also led to epic disappointment. According to Olympic gold medal–winning bobsledder Steve Mesler, that obsessive drive can turn problematic when the challenge disappears. “[Internal pressure] is great for being a successful athlete,” Mesler tells OZY, “but, for a young person, it can become really unhealthy if there’s no outlet.”
I tried swimming, water skiing, even gymnastics again. But none of it worked out.… Snowboarding was the first time that I felt like myself again.
So when the doctors diagnosed 14-year-old Brenna with bone cancer in her right femur, she refused to see it as the end of her gymnastics career. She’d beat the disease and carry on. But then the tumor in her right leg grew, “from a golf ball to a softball,” she says, and survival meant losing the leg. Her leg was amputated and she began a course of chemotherapy before ditching the medication, desperate to move forward. “I was in a very dark place, trying to figure out my life,” says Huckaby. “I tried swimming, water skiing, even gymnastics again. But none of it worked out.… Snowboarding was the first time that I felt like myself again.”
About a year after losing her leg, Huckaby was invited to the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, for a rehabilitation ski trip. It was exploratory, intended for people, like her, who might be struggling to adapt to a new forever. Huckaby’s mother, Kristie, her companion on the trip, quickly realized that snowboarding would not be another one-off. “She saw the light back in my eyes,” says Brenna. When asked if there’s a lesson that she wants people to take from her story, Huckaby replies, “Life throws us curveballs all the time. Just know that you can get through it. Find that light to get you through the dark. It’s out there if you’re willing to find it.”
Following that first visit to Utah, Huckaby knew she wanted to build a career in snowboarding, a sport that presents the same degree of challenge as gymnastics. Unfortunately, not much snow falls in Louisiana — so her parents teamed up to take care of the logistics. Kristie found a job as a nurse in Salt Lake City and moved with Brenna to Utah while her husband stayed in Baton Rouge with their sons. Huckaby finished high school through online coursework, with the rest of her days spent training on the slopes. Right from the start, her gymnastics background — namely her unrelenting pursuit of perfection — paid dividends. Huckaby quickly mastered the basics of the sport and pushed herself to execute moves that most amputees find impossible. “I love that challenge of pushing to reach elite status,” says Huckaby, who is gunning for double golds in Pyeongchang.
After several months at the National Ability Center, Huckaby moved over to Team Utah to train more seriously with its founder, coach Lane Clegg, who works closely with NAC to host special adaptive groups for athletes with physical impairments. Once an adaptive athlete proves his or her proficiency, they cross over to training with the able-bodied athletes. According to Clegg, Huckaby advanced swiftly by way of pure determination and grit. “I don’t know if ‘talent’ is the right word, but she was definitely motivated,” says Clegg. “Whatever she’s doing, she goes all-in.”
But Huckaby’s workhorse mentality is not the only welcome addition to Team Utah. Her vivacious personality and continuous quest for “the light” fit well in a sporting community that’s pulling together. “Especially during competition season … she always keeps the team laughing,” says Clegg. “It’s like a family away from home.”
As the odds-on favorite heading to Pyeongchang, Huckaby is most excited to bring home a gold medal for Lilah, who turns 2 in May. Huckaby and her fiancé, Lane’s son Tristan Clegg, have already begun teaching their daughter how to board. “She’s pretty cool,” says Huckaby with a chuckle. “Winning for her, and for my entire family, would really mean a lot.”
How’s that for inspiration?