Three-time gold-winning Paralympian Brenna Huckaby went from surviving bone cancer to becoming a world class snowboarder. Huckaby, classified as SB-LL1 snowboarder, found her category phased out from the 2022 Winter Paralympics and took action. In January, she won a court ruling against the International Paralympic Committee, allowing her to compete in SB-LL2 events where she took home gold in banked-slalom and bronze in snowboard cross. Huckaby met with ABILITY’s George Kaplan and gave glimpse into the mind and motivation of a champion Paralympian. Huckaby also shared the secret to her success.
George Kaplan: Just over 10 years ago you overcame something I have personal experience with myself, which is osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. Can you tell me more about your experience with it?
Brenna Huckaby: About a year later, when I was 14, the knee pain never went away. It continued to cycle. It would happen sometimes and not happen other times. One of the times that the knee pain came back up, it was so intense that I was in tears. I went to my mom and I was like, “Mom, my knee hurts.” She said, “OK, we can’t do this anymore. We need to get to the bottom of what is going on. We’re going to go back to the doctor.”
Kaplan: Did it swell up, by the way?
Huckaby: Of course. I competed in gymnastics for the majority of my life. I had goals of becoming a college gymnast. When I was 13, I started to have knee pain. It was interesting because it only hurt some of the time. I went to the doctor, and they did an x-ray, but they didn’t find anything wrong. The doctor said, “Do physical therapy, and we’ll go from there.” But we didn’t have the funds for physical therapy, so I continued what I was doing and made an extra point to condition my muscles a little bit more around my knee.
Huckaby: It didn’t swell up that much. Honestly, the only way that we knew there was swelling was when we were told to look for it. It was very small swelling and slight discolored red, and then it was warm to the touch. But again, you wouldn’t think to look for those until you know to look for them. At this doctor’s appointment, they found a tumor on the x-ray. When you go back to compare the two x-rays from when I was 13 and 14, the x-ray when I was 13, the tumor was so, so small that you couldn’t see it without knowing what you were looking for. But, honestly, had we even caught it then, the outcome probably would have been the same anyway.
So, when I was 14, we found the tumor. Two or so weeks later, I had the diagnosis of osteosarcoma, bone cancer. And about two months later I had an amputation.
Kaplan: Wow, that’s a lot to go through at that age, I imagine.
Huckaby: Yeah, absolutely. I had just started high school. It wasn’t how I expected my freshman year to go. But again, I’m super-fortunate because of how long I had my cancer without knowing it, I should not be alive.
Kaplan: I’m not an athlete, but I had a very similar experience. What kind of advice do you have for someone who is going through a similar kind of cancer experience?
Huckaby: Something that got me through is, just because your life looks different than it did before, doesn’t mean it can’t still be great. That’s something I struggled with a little while as I was adapting to my new life because while I was going through chemotherapy, I remember thinking about my friends, my future, my sports, my goals, everything that I cared about. That’s what held me together during my cancer journey. But when I finished chemotherapy, it hit me that that life didn’t exist anymore. Everything I once knew was gone and so different.
I had to grieve the loss of that life that I knew and then rebuild and reinvent myself into this new life. It was really scary. I was like, “I don’t know if my life can still be as great and as awesome as it was before.” But it can, and in a lot of ways it could be better, too.
Kaplan: You said two months into treatment, you became an amputee, and you had to readapt to life. What was that experience having to readapt to something so different?
Huckaby: It definitely took some time. Like I said, I went through a grieving process, a depression period where I didn’t have the motivation to live because the life I wanted just didn’t exist. I had to have a massive heart-to-heart, intervention, whatever you want to call it, with my family. They sat me down and they were like, “Brenna, every time you lie on this couch, cancer is winning. The more that you’re not getting up and living your new life, cancer will continue to hold you back. It’s time to beat cancer once and for all and move forward through it.” We knew that gymnastics was my outlet before. So, we were like, “Let’s find your new gymnastics, your new sport.” I tried gymnastics again, but it didn’t give me the light that I had before. That started a whole process of finding a sport or an outlet like gymnastics, just as an amputee. That’s how I landed on snowboarding.
Kaplan: What was the motivation that got you into snowboarding?
Huckaby: I was treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center. They used to do a thing called—
Kaplan: I love them, by the way. They’re so great!
Huckaby: Oh, I love MD Anderson. I will fly there. If I ever have any problems, I will be flying to Texas to get taken care of over there. Gosh, I can’t remember the name of the program, but they used to do a rehabilitation ski trip. On this trip, most people skied, I think I was probably the first who snowboarded. The doctor who organized it, his belief was that if we can get kids who lost mobility through cancer up skiing, then they can see a world of possibilities that they could do with their lives, whether that’s getting up and making themselves a sandwich or becoming a CEO of a company. It’ll give them that confidence to go out and live the life they used to live with full mobility.
I chose to snowboard on that trip because it reminded me of a balance beam. I wanted any piece of my old life back. I just wanted a taste of it again. And I learned to snowboard and fell in love with it and moved to the mountains. (laughs)
Kaplan: That’s a huge change, from Baton Rouge to over there?
Huckaby: Yeah, massive change. But definitely better for me, I think, in more ways than just snowboarding. Just a better climate as an amputee as well. I don’t sweat as much, that’s the main thing. And there are a lot of opportunities to be mobile out here.
Kaplan: I’m from Miami, and I get the climate thing. It’s the worst to be an amputee in a hot climate.
Huckaby: You had osteo?
Kaplan: I had osteo, yes.
Huckaby: Are you an AK (above the knee)or a BK (below the knee)?
Kaplan: I’m an AK.
Huckaby: OK, so you know the struggles!
Kaplan: Yes, it is rough out there! I understand the sweating problem and all that. It is not cute.
Huckaby: You get it! No, it’s not cute. I prefer the less humid environments for that reason. Utah, that’s where I live now, it’s way better for me.
Kaplan: What drew you to competition?
Huckaby: Honestly, when I started snowboarding, it wasn’t in the Paralympics yet. They were in the process of making it into the Paralympics. I wasn’t fully motivated by competition when I first began. Obviously, there was a piece of me that would love to do it, but that wasn’t my main focus. My main focus was having an outlet and a place to go. It wasn’t until I started with a snowboarding team, just to get better and develop my skills and know how to ride a snowboard so I could have more access to the mountains. They invited me to go to a competition and do snowboard cross. And I got on a snowboard cross course and I had so much fun. I was like, “Whoa! I want to do this!” Because I felt that competition spirit that I hadn’t noticed or felt since gymnastics, and I was like, “I need more of that!”
That competition was just me and another teammate, it wasn’t a big thing at all. It was super-local. After that one I went to nationals, where a lot of the athletes who were there had just come back from Sochi. I started snowboarding and then shortly after, snowboarding became a Paralympic sport for Sochi. That season that Sochi happened was the season I started competing. I just missed competing in Sochi by a couple months. I went to nationals with all of these athletes who had just gotten back from the Paralympics, and I placed third. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I could actually be good at this if I keep training to compete.”
I think the possibility of being a top athlete is what drew me to competing in the Paralympics. I was like, “I don’t suck, and I haven’t been doing this for very long, so I’m excited to see where I can go!”
Kaplan: (laughs) I love that takeaway: “I don’t suck!”
Huckaby: (laughs) I mean, I did suck, but I sucked less than other people, and that was exciting!
Kaplan: Is there someone in your ear who says, “OK, we have a potential Paralympian on our hands”? Or is that your inner voice speaking?
Huckaby: Both. Once I got into competing and I felt that drive again, I was like, “I know I can do this. I know I could be good at this.” And at that national event, the US team coach invited me to a World Cup that next season. The coaches had seen my potential in the sport as well and were encouraging me. I was 17 at the time. I was just about to turn 18. My mom was nervous about me going out of the country. Obviously, I went and it was awesome. I continued to show up. (laughs)
Kaplan: Can you tell me more about that first time? Obviously, you aced it, you got gold in both categories. What was that like for your first Paralympics?
Huckaby: Oh, my goodness! Honestly, it was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. It was because I made it stressful, I put so much pressure on myself to win those gold medals that I wasn’t really able to enjoy it. I’m still so proud of myself in everything I’ve done and how far I’ve come, but I’m more proud of myself, I think, for my most recent medals because I didn’t wrap up my worth in them. Whereas in 2018, I told myself, “In order to be worthy and deserving, you have to win. Gold medals dictate who you are.” I felt super-empty and depressed after winning my two gold medals at the first Games, and I was like, “I don’t ever want to feel this way again.” I did a lot of therapy and personal development and spiritual practices to love myself. My wins this time, I didn’t wrap my worth up in them. I was able to enjoy and be present and have a good experience, whereas before, I only cared about the outcome. Yeah. (laughs)
Kaplan: That’s good! You talk a lot about manifesting your goals. You set your goals pretty high. What are some keys to manifesting those goals?
Huckaby: Both games, something I do is to visualize. When I’m training, if I’m in the gym on the bike or wherever, I’m like, “I can do this easily.” I focus on myself winning the race before I get there. For Korea, I saw the venue before we raced it because we did a test of it. We were there a year before.
Kaplan: Oh, that’s cool.
Huckaby: Yeah, it was awesome. And that’s typical. For a whole year after that test of it, I visualized myself going down that course, I visualized the medal ceremony. I knew where everything was going to be, and I was there. I had already done it in my head. And I would feel it, connect with it. And I did the same thing for China, but China was a little different because I had never been there, never seen the course, had no idea what to expect. So, when I did visualize, it was more like what I wanted to feel in that moment. I wanted to feel proud of myself, I wanted to feel at peace and excited and joyful and connected. I sat down with those feelings rather than actually seeing what it would look like. That is huge for me because it calms my nerves once I’m there and it makes the steps that need to happen in order to get there—it just kind of makes everything align. I’m trying to think of anything else I do. Oh, I connect with my “Why?” for motivation. You hear a lot of people talk about that. My “Why?” when I started was to show people that just because your life was different doesn’t mean it can’t be great. After I had my first daughter, my “Why?” kind of shifted into showing my daughter that exact thing. “Life gets hard. Things get challenging. But it doesn’t mean it’s not out of reach.” Those are things I connect to to stay—I don’t know, moving, moving forward, not ever getting stressed out. I mean, sometimes you get stressed out, but for the most part, it keeps me level.
Kaplan: You’re no stranger to the Paralympics, having won gold at both SBLL-1 [single above knee amputation, including through the knee] class events. How did it feel to find that category removed this year’s event?
Huckaby: I was upset. However, I understand that there were not enough women to make a viable Games for my class. When I had first learned in 2019 that my class wouldn’t be in the Games, that’s when I was told I could compete up with the other women. I knew that I would compete at a disadvantage, but I’ve never compared myself—I never mentally put myself at a disadvantage, if that make sense. When I’m training, I’m always trying to be better, trying to find my limits. It doesn’t matter who I’m competing against because the mission’s the same: to see how fast you can get, how far you can get, how strong you can get.
When I found out in 2019 that I would compete up in LL-2, nothing changed. I was just happy to have the opportunity to compete, even though it was at a disadvantage. But in 2021, when the official written-out guidelines came out for Beijing, I was completely left out. There was no way for me to be eligible to compete. There was no spot, no language, anything written for my class. That was stressful. It was disheartening. It was—I don’t know, it felt like I was being excluded because of how well my performance had been. I can’t tell you exactly why this happened. But I just know that it hurt, and I wasn’t going to stand for it because there wasn’t—it didn’t make sense as to why it was happening. Which is why I fought back.
At first, I contacted the U.S. OPC [Olympic & Paralympic Committee] and we went through all the appropriate channels within the IPC [International Paralympic Committee] to make a change to what was happening, and they held firm on their belief that I was not allowed to compete. That left me with no choice other than to fight it in court, hire a lawyer, which is what I ultimately did, and that’s how I won my spot into Beijing. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be competing.
Kaplan: How did it feel to win that case?
Huckaby: Oh! I’ll be honest. I didn’t think I would have. I wasn’t going to back down regardless. I was going to fight it to the end. But everything I was hearing from the IPC flowing down was not positive for me competing. I remember, it was our world championships when I got the call that I had won my case. I started screaming and crying, and I’m not an emotional person at all. It just broke me. Happiness, relief, excitement. That was the right call all along. It felt really good to be heard and validated in my fight. I think those were the two things I had been missing the entire time, validation that I shouldn’t be excluded on the basis of my disability, and also, I am heard and changes will be made because of that. That was an amazing, incredible feeling.
Kaplan: What does it feel like to be part of a landmark case like that?
Huckaby: It really hasn’t fully sunk in because there are still other changes that need to be made to solidify what happened in the court. I’m working behind the scenes to make sure those things happen. But they haven’t fully been solidified yet. Once rules are in place so that this doesn’t happen to someone else, then I’ll be able to fully celebrate what we did in court. But until then, I’m just processing and trying to make lasting change with what happen.
Kaplan: Was there any kind of tension at the event that led from that?
Huckaby: I think it was hard for me. I didn’t talk to anyone from the IPC. A lot of the nations and athletes and coaches from other sports had come up to me and congratulated me on my fight. They were so excited that I was there. That was really cool and special because they were from snowboarding, they were from other sports, which was really cool. I think for me, going around the village and seeing all these signs about how inclusive the Paralympics are and how diverse and how they listen to the athletes, seeing all this signage but knowing what I had just gone through to get to the Games, it felt so hypocritical, and it still kind of does. I had to process that a lot while I was there and work through that. I would say directly, no, there wasn’t any bad blood or anything.
Kaplan: That’s good. So, despite competing in the category where other athletes are expected to “outclass” you per se, for lack of a better term, you came out on top in Banked Slalom. What was going through your mind on that second run?
Huckaby: I compete against the same women all year. Banked Slalom is unique because it’s straight time. It’s all raw time. I’m always competing against LL-2 women [lower levels of impairment such as above-the-ankle amputations]. I also compare my times against the men, and I’m competing against them in my head. I’m always competing with these other groups because it challenges me as an athlete. The Chinese women we hadn’t really seen the last four years. They were never at any World Cups. So, it was a big surprise when they were extremely fast because none of us had ever seen them before.
After my first run, when I saw that I was only .08 off of first place, I was able to relax a little bit because I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I can actually do this!” And when I say “Do this,” I just meant podium. I wasn’t expecting to win, to be completely honest.
So, I was like, “OK, I can get on the podium.” I was standing at the top and there was a lot going on that day outside of just sport. I was in not the best mindset. I thought, “I really need to just work on getting into the flow, getting to myself and just snowboarding.” I asked one of my coaches at the top, I said, “Look, I just want to know where Cecile and Lisa—” who are two women I constantly compete against— “where they are, if I’m going to beat them or not.” Those were my girls. We are so competitive together, in a good way, and I’m like, “If I beat them, I’m matching up where I want to match up.” I had found out that I did. So, I was like, “OK, I did what I can control. These are women I constantly compete against. If these Chinese women weren’t here, I would be winning.” And that’s not to say that they shouldn’t be there. It was just a unique situation we’ve never experienced before.
So, I’m like, “OK, I’m just going to let it all go. I’m just going to go. I’m just going to see what happens. If I blow out of the course, I blow out of the course. I don’t even care at this point. I just want to see how fast I can go.” Obviously, I didn’t blow out of the course. I almost did a couple times. But when I crossed the finish time all I wanted to know was, did I do enough to make the podium? Because I was sitting at fourth or fifth at the time. It was really funny because they were like, “Yeah, you’re winning!” And I was like, “What? There’s no way!” (laughs) It was wild.
Kaplan: That quote at the end, iconic! (laughs) “Am I on the podium?” You clinched it within the very end of it, and then you got a tenth of a second?
Huckaby: Yeah, it’s insane. Mid-course, I’m almost half a second off of first place, which is a lot. That is so much time. And to make that up in the bottom course is unreal. Honestly, that’s the most proud of myself, the biggest part that I’m proud of myself for. That’s really hard to do. And somehow, I did it. I still don’t know how I did it. I made up half a second in such a short amount of course. But yeah, it was really cool. (laughs)
Kaplan: It is pretty cool. What do you feel is the secret to your success?
Huckaby: I used to try to prove to myself that I was just as good of an athlete as able-bodied people. That was always my fight. It wasn’t a positive thing. I was always trying to prove to society, to sponsors, to spectators that adaptive athletes are just as good and we can go just as hard. That was my motivation for a very long time, until I realized that it was more harmful to me. I was destroying my body, my mental health.
The reality is, as adaptive athletes, we have to go through a lot more, and there are limits compared to able-bodied athletes that we do have to overcome. We do have to take care of our bodies for long-term life. I would say now, my success comes from rest, from understanding that my body needs time to recover, to heal. And also, I’m already worthy and deserving and the people who need to see that do, and I can’t change anyone else’s mind. That’s not my responsibility.
Once I realized that it’s not my responsibility to change how people see people with disabilities, my responsibility is to live my life to the fullest and enjoy life and protect my physical and mental health in the process. I think that’s when I was able to make leaps and bounds in my training and in my progression of sport, which is crazy. (laughs) You would think it would be the opposite, but rest and recovery has been the secret to my success these last four years.
Kaplan: That’s very good for people to hear. A lot of times disabled people do push themselves to prove themselves. Other than that, what kind of barriers do you feel you face or other disabled athletes face on and off the snow?
Huckaby: I still think—there’s still change that needs to be made for inclusivity and representation and diversity, whether that’s in the media, in the Paralympics, there’s still room to grow. I think the hardest part is having a voice because I think that we get passed up a lot, and able-bodied people or people at the top are trying to do what they think is best, rather than listening to the affected communities and what we are saying needs to change. I think that’s the hardest part, still feeling voiceless and powerless in the conversation. But I will say, in the last eight years since I’ve been around, I’ve seen a lot of growth, and I think as long as we keep speaking out, keep demanding change, keep holding corporations accountable, we will continue to see that change. That’s what we’ve got to do!
Kaplan: I like that. So, you’re a role model not just to disabled athletes everywhere, but to two daughters as well. How do you take that on? Is there anyone else you look up to?
Huckaby: It used to be really hard for me. I never asked to be a role model. This was never my goal or my purpose. But now, it’s a role that I take seriously and I take huge responsibility for. A lot of the time, most of the time, it’s a lot easier to go for something you want to go for if you see somebody else doing it. I want to be that person doing it, but also that person who will reach out a hand and help somebody else get to where I am. It’s a role that I take very seriously. And I’m hoping that in that process I can show my daughters how to become that as well, how to become a woman who empowers other women and is lending a hand and building other people up. That’s what’s important in this world. What was the second part of that question? (laughs)
Kaplan: Is there anyone you look up to or have looked up to?
Huckaby: I try not to idolize people. I feel like I used to do that and I got horribly let down. But there is one woman who I still do, even though she has passed. Bibian Mentel-Spee was one of the legends in Paralympic snowboarding, definitely someone I have looked up to a very, very long time. I hope to be half the woman she was. She was a woman who reached out a hand, always. Always encouraging, empowering other women in the sport, empowering other women to be good humans. I hope that I can continue that legacy.
Kaplan: If you’re not there yet, you’re well on your way.
Huckaby: (laughs) Thank you!