BY JAMIE M. BLANCHARD I APRIL 16, 2013
In January, Heidi Jo Duce stood at the start of her first ever snowboard cross competition. And she fell coming right out of the gate on the Copper Mountain, Colo., course.
“I had to hop and hop and hop just to get started,” Duce said.
Little did 22-year-old Duce know, the start of her first race, a small regional competition, would also mark the start of a storybook tale that could include a chapter on the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, come next March.
“I find it hard to believe,” the Ouray, Colo., native said.
How could she not?
Netherlands’ Bibian Mentel and U.S. teammate Amy Purdy, ranked No. 1 and 2 in the world, have competed for more than 10 years each, as able-bodied and now amputee athletes.
Should Duce make the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team, she would compete at the most respected event in para-snowboard cross, only 14 months after making her competitive debut.
“There are no words to describe how I feel,” Duce said. “It is hard for me to imagine what it would be like to compete in Sochi.”
Duce, who has fibular hemimelia, was born without a fibula and most of the bones in her right ankle and foot. At 18 months, she had what remained of her right leg amputated below the knee, and an additional four inches were amputated when she was 19.
“When I was growing up, I went to the Un-limb-ited Amputee Camp in Utah, which is where they take young amputees and teach them how to ski and snowboard,” Duce said. She attended her first of six consecutive camps at 11 years old but the sport was purely recreational.
“For a while, Team Utah had approached me about training with them but I was not stoked about leaving Colorado so I never went through with it,” Duce said.
The thought of pursuing snowboard cross stayed put in the back of her mind until one day last summer, shortly after the International Paralympic Committee announced that the sport would debut as a part of the alpine skiing program in Sochi.
“One of the directors of Adaptive Action Sports came into the kayak supply store where I was working,” Duce said. “He talked to me about joining an adaptive snowboarding program here in Colorado.”
And like that, she rewrote her life to include a bid for the Paralympic Winter Games.
“When I found out about snowboarding being in the Paralympics, it changed everything for me,” said Duce. “I decided that I should give everything to snowboarding.”
Within months, she relocated to Copper Mountain to embark on a new chapter in her life.
The competitive snowboarder chapter reads just like this:
- Bronze medal at Nor Am Cup in Twin Bridges, Calif.
- Bronze at Nor Am Cup in Copper Mountain, Colo.
- Bronze at IPC Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup in Maribor, Slovenia
- Bronze at IPC Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup in Kelowna, Canada
- Gold at the U.S. Paralympics Snowboard National Championships in Copper Mountain, Colo.
“Everything has come together so quickly for me,” said Duce, who is taking a summer class at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, although her full-time studies are on hold for the Games.
Her goal was one appearance on the world cup circuit to lay the groundwork for Sochi.
“I got invited to both,” Duce said.
And she medaled in both, too.
“When we rolled up in Slovenia with our U.S. jerseys on, I can’t describe how I felt because it was so amazing,” Duce said. “The only thing better is when you hear your name announced as a medal winner. Representing my country on that podium, with USA on my chest, is just the coolest thing I have ever done.”
Although Duce medaled, her runs were not without troubles.
“I have never done a boarder cross before this year,” Duce said. “I have set my standards really high but to be as successful as I want to be, I need to get more comfortable with my skills. It’s my first year every bringing my board off the ground so air awareness is something that I lack right now. I get scared having to be in the air. Sometimes, I get scared with the speed, so I have to speed check a lot, too.”
At the national championships, Duce came as close to perfect as she has been all season, beating rival Purdy, who trumped her at all four international events.
“I’ve been chasing Amy down all season, but all season, I’ve also had trouble staying on my feet so I could never tell how close I could be to her,” she said.
Purdy, who finished behind Mentel in each competition, was more than 20 seconds faster than Duce in some events.
“After the first race at nationals, I was just a second behind her,” Duce said. “I knew I could do it.”
Duce beat Purdy 1:50.32 to 1:50.35.
“My goal has been to be as good as Amy Purdy or better than her,” she said. “It was amazing to win that competition when we were both racing well. Knowing that I have the chance to do well, the chance to beat someone like Amy gives me more confidence than ever.”
The next goal is to make the inaugural U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team, which will be announced by May 1.
The writing may be on the wall for Sochi after that.
“Winning the gold medal in Sochi is an option for me,” Duce said. “I have a lot of work to do to beat Bibian and Amy but I can’t think of two better people to chase down.”
After Sochi, four more years?
“I think I have a long way to go before I am the best I can be.”