On the first day of a recent world cup event in Spain, snowboarder Nicole Roundy earned her first medal in a long time.
Her quick trip down the mountain at La Molina, Spain, in the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Para-Snowboarding World Cup Final this month put her on the podium for the first time since 2011 and produced a memory forever cast in bronze.
Yet the next day, she finished fourth. No medal, no podium and a very familiar feeling.
Nicole Roundy is a member of the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding Team.
Twice before this year she had finished fourth. She was fourth three times in 2013.
“Dear 4th place,” she tweeted on Feb. 12, the day she was less than a second from another medal. “There will be a day (very soon) when you will have to let me go. This is not that day. I’m just giving you a heads up.”
Said Roundy, laughing: “I’ve spent a lot of time in fourth place.”
Yet Roundy is encouraged rather than discouraged. As she gets ready to compete at Sochi next month in the first Paralympic Winter Games in which snowboarders will take part, she has the confidence that comes with that long-awaited bronze medal, a ranking of fifth in the world in her classification and the satisfaction of knowing she’s getting better.
“Even though I’ve been in fourth place, I’ve basically been improving my times,” said Roundy, who celebrated her 28th birthday on Valentine’s Day. “I keep getting closer and closer to the podium.”
Plus, she notes, competing isn’t always about winning, but “taking the small steps toward your ultimate goal.”
“I’ve gotten stronger and a lot more confident,” she said. “It was good to finally see that pay off at the level that I wanted it to in Spain, and I want to take that with me into Sochi and do the same thing.”
She admits she’s not a favorite to win a medal in Russia in the lone snowboarding event, snowboard cross, but says it’s possible.
“In a lot of ways I’m the underdog,” says Roundy, who lives in Salt Lake City, near where she grew up. “I’m at a disadvantage physically and sometimes even mentally when you never know how the day’s going to play out. … But hopefully, everything that I’ve done to get up to this point has prepared me, and I feel ready.”
Roundy is at a disadvantage because she is a rare above-the-knee amputee on the world cup scene. When she was 8, she was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a bone cancer, and it was necessary to amputate her right leg above the knee.
Ten years later she took up skiing, in 2006, she began snowboarding. Since that time, she’s been steadily improving. But because she has one artificial knee, she doesn’t have the fluidity that most of her teammates and competitors have.
“I just don’t have as much movement because … with prosthetics, there’s a very fine line between having movement and having stability,” she said. “It’s like one or the other. So if I want movement, I give up stability. If I want stability, I give up movement. And because I can’t control the mechanics of my knee, I just don’t have as much movement. Typically, that makes me slowest as a rider on the course. That’s a disadvantage, because the point is to go as fast as you can.”
Roundy laughs after the explanation. It’s just the way it is and what she deals with.
“I still put down solid times with what I have,” she said. “I work really well with my limitations.”
But she’s been pushing to extend those limitations.
Over the past year she’s been putting more time into strength and fitness — doing some CrossFit, yoga and cycling — while also paying more attention to her nutrition and her mental approach by speaking with a sports psychologist.
That transition to full-time, serious athlete is producing results. She says she’s seen steady improvements that prove she’s headed in the right direction — reinforced by the third-place finish in Spain.
“There’s a time when you wake up in the morning and you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, these things are working,’” she said. “This is happening. But most of the time it’s just little changes here and there that you notice. The efforts you’re going through and the sacrifices are making a difference, they’re just smaller than what you’d necessarily have in mind.
“It’s not like you wake up one day and you’re this strong, fit, eight-pack athlete. … It’s just one day at a time.”
Soon after Roundy took up snowboarding, she finished second in her class in slopestyle in the USA Snowboard Association Championships in 2006. Over the next three years at the U.S. championships she took 10 seconds and a third in a variety of events. Then, in 2011, she finished second at world cup events in France, Canada and New Zealand. But, she hadn’t won a medal since.
“Getting back on the podium at this level has taken everything I’ve got, and maybe then some,” said Roundy.
Now, she’s eager to compete in Sochi not just for herself, but for snowboarding. She calls it a “milestone in the sport” to finally be included in the Paralympic Games, and she’s proud to be a part of it.
“Whether I’m on the podium or not, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s the fact we get to go and represent our country.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.