Fueling communities presented by BP: Heidi Jo Duce

By Katie Branham | March 14, 2014, 1 p.m. (ET)
Heidi Jo Duce
Heidi Jo Duce finished fifth in the snowboard cross event at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

Among the dozens and dozens of Olympians and Paralympians living and training in Colorado, only a handful are natives of the state, and only one is from the small town of Ouray.

“It is like a hidden gem in the middle of nowhere,” Paralympic snowboarder Heidi Jo Duce said of her hometown. “Ouray is just this baby community. It’s called the Switzerland of America - it’s less than a mile across and less than a mile long. It’s surrounded on three sides by massive mountains. You come into town and the valley just closes in. There aren’t words to describe how awesome it is.”

Growing up as the only child in Ouray with any kind of physical disability, Duce never felt different from her classmates.

“I was the only amputee in my town and in the town next to me. I don’t feel like I was ever treated as someone with a disability. I was always treated as just one of the kids. I remember when I first started pre-school; my parents went in there with me to tell the other kids about my leg, and they just accepted me.”

Once Duce had that support on her first day of school, she never had to worry about it again. Out of her high school graduating class of 24 students, 10 of them had been going to school with Duce since preschool.

In a town as small as Ouray, which Duce says has around 700 year-round residents, everyone knows about her Paralympic journey.

“Everybody in town definitely knows about the Paralympics. Being such a small town, and with my dad being who he is – he owns the local gas station, service station and wrecker service, and he is also on the fire department - everybody knows everybody, and everyone is very much inside everyone’s business.”

The town of Ouray isn’t just in Duce’s business, they are supporting her with their businesses.

“There are businesses in town that have purchased Team USA flags and they have them flying outside, and when the Paralympics came around, all the shops in Ouray painted the IPC emblem, ‘Team USA’ and ‘Go Heidi’ on all of their windows. It is amazing.”

The town has held multiple fundraisers to support Duce’s training. There have been golf tournaments, a local brewery hosted an event at the ice climbing park, and even a girls’ night where men were auctioned off for various services like carpentry work, handyman jobs or a jeep ride in the mountains. Duce estimates that the town has raised close to $20,000 to support her training.

“I always tell people I am completely unsponsored. I don’t have a single corporate sponsor, and I’m actually pretty proud of that fact. I feel like I am sponsored and supported by my town, and I feel like I get to ride for Ouray and represent these amazing people who support me so much.”

And it is not just monetary support that the town provides for Duce, it’s emotional too.

“Whenever I’m having a bad day or I’m feeling overwhelmed by this whole Paralympics thing I’ve gotten myself into, all I have to do is check my phone or email or log onto Facebook and there are always at least 10 posts waiting for me from people from my town telling me how proud they are of me, and how much they support me. I feel like the luckiest person in the world.”

For Duce, giving back to the community who supports her in her journey isn’t a new idea. She grew up in a family and in a town where everyone supports the local sports teams and pitches in for the fire department fundraisers.   

“Giving back to the community is just part of how we were raised, and that’s just how Ouray works, it’s a big family.”

While she grew up giving back to others, she now has the opportunity to help inspire the next generation of Ouray natives to pursue their passions.

“I have spoken to schools, and the basketball coach recently asked me to speak to his team next time I am home, and I always try to make time in my schedule to do things like that.”

But for Duce, the best way to give back to her community isn’t standing in front of them holding a microphone; it’s standing beside them and letting them know that they made a difference in her life.

“It is on a person-to-person basis for me. Every time I’m in town I am stopping at businesses and letting them know how much I appreciate them. Every time I see people in town I try to make it clear to them that their support means a lot to me. I mean I could go ride in a parade, but I don’t think it has the same effect as a personal thank you.”

Duce competed in the first-ever snowboard cross competition at the Paralympic Winter Games on March 14, finishing fifth, and her entire “family” of 700 was watching and cheering her on from Ouray.

“When you grow up in Ouray, you aren’t just raised by your parents, you are raised by the entire town, it’s like a big extended family.”