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Brenna Huckaby Is the Mindset Queen We All Need

We can all take some notes in perseverance from the Paralympic gold medalist.
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Although Brenna Huckaby is a highly decorated athlete, she should be awarded a gold medal for her mental strength.

In her teens she was a nationally ranked gymnast with hopes of earning a college scholarship. But an osteosarcoma (bone cancer) diagnosis in 2010 forced Huckaby to put that dream on hold when she had to undergo the amputation of her right leg above the knee.

As part of her physical therapy, Huckaby was sent on a rehabilitation ski trip to Park City, Utah. At 15, she learned how to snowboard with her prosthetic leg and by 2013 she was on the competition circuit. Two years later, in 2015, she won her first world championship in para-snowboarding. The following year, Huckaby sat out the season to give birth to daughter Lilah, but quickly returned to win the snowboard cross and banked slalom events at the 2017 para world championships. She then went on to win double gold at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Shortly before these Games, Huckaby became the first amputee to be featured in the SI Swimsuit Issue.

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Huckaby, now 26 and the mother of two (daughter Sloan was born in 2020), uses her platform not only to inspire, but also to educate people about what her life is like as an amputee. “My page is here to expand your understanding of one area of disability, above the knee amputation,” she explains on Instagram. “Everyone has different experiences with their disabilities. I’m simply sharing mine to minimize ableism and destigmatize disability.”

In June 2019, the International Paralympic Committee eliminated the snowboarder's LL1 event classifications, saying there weren’t enough viable competitors for the 2022 Paralympics based on her level of impairment. When the IPC wouldn’t change their stance, Huckaby pushed back. Last September she asked to compete in either the men’s LL1 race or in the women’s LL2, a category of lower limb impairment with less limitation than her own. Both of these races would be considerably more difficult than those she had competed in at the 2018 Games as she would essentially be competing up. The IPC argued that under the existing World Para Snowboard rules, women are not eligible to compete in men’s events, and also cannot participate in sport classes at the Games for which they are not eligible. Huckaby filed an injunction in November and took to social media to plead her case and rally support. In January, a German court ruled in her favor. In Beijing, after months of not knowing whether she could compete in the Games at all, Huckaby won gold in the women's banked slalom and bronze medal in the women's snowboard cross.

“I fought to compete at a disadvantage at the Paralympic Games this year,” she wrote on Instagram shortly after her snowboard event. “I fought for my right to compete even if I would be the only above-the-knee amputee woman on the track. I fought for inclusion in Paralympic snowboarding, and I fought all the way to a bronze medal. This medal means more to me than any gold I’ve ever won.”

She added, “This medal symbolizes every person who’s been told “no” but shows up and gives it their all anyway. This medal symbolizes people who have been purposefully shut down but chose to stand up and speak out for what is right. This medal is for the underdog who wants the opportunity to compete regardless of how hard the playing field is.”

Later after winning the gold she continues, “The fight was worth it before the medal, it's just icing on the cake."

We had the opportunity to sit down with Brenna to hear from her directly about this past journey, and what her takeaways have been.

Why was your recent win so meaningful?

"My recent win was for more than just myself. It was a win for inclusion in para snowboarding and for people with disabilities everywhere. I traditionally compete in the most impaired lower limb category due to the severity of my disability. In 2019, my category was cut from the Beijing Games, but I was told I’d be able to compete in the less impaired category that still had medal events for The Paralympics. The classes sometimes combine for World Cups, so I have competed and done well in the less impaired class previously. I was excited for the challenge. In 2021, the Para snowboarding rules for the Games came out and they did not allow me to compete in the harder class. Essentially, I was being excluded from the Paralympic Games based on the severity of my disability. I fought for over a year for the opportunity to compete (at a disadvantage against the less impaired athletes). All I wanted was a chance to compete. I didn’t care against whom I competed. My disability shouldn’t hold me back. I ultimately was granted the right to compete, which I hope encourages others to use their voices and fight for what is right. It was a step in the right direction for inclusion. Winning gold and bronze medals at the Games was just icing on the cake." 

How do you handle the mental stress?

"I handle the mental stress by knowing I'm enough regardless of where I place. Medals do not determine my worth and I live by that. When I remember I am loved beyond sport, it makes the stress of performing melt away because I already won in life. I have a great family and wonderful kids. I am happy with who I am, and that is more important than if I finish on the podium."

So many eyes are on you. What message would you like other women to take away from your experience?

"My message is to never give up the fight for change. During this journey of fighting for inclusion in the Games, at times I felt voiceless, powerless, and even hopeless but I never stopped fighting. When you believe in something that will make a positive impact and change for a lot of people, using your voice matters. You are never too small to take a stand and make change."

What are your future goals?

"I plan to continue competing in snowboarding and more broadly, I will continue to use my platform to advocate for disability representation and inclusion. This fight was a reminder that there is still a long way to go for people with disabilities but as long as we keep speaking out, keeping succeeding and keep pushing the boundaries, we’ll continue to make change." 

Beginning on International Women’s Day (March 8), the Pay With Change initiative will be front and center on SI Swim channels through daily spotlights on the women, brands and properties making a concerted effort to fight for women’s equality.