As someone who lived in her car for a year — her choice, not hard-times economics — Heidi Jo Duce was no stranger to a kind of seat-of-her-pants existence that also informed her rapid rise in the Paralympic world.
One day, she branches out from snowboarding “weekend warrior” to enter a competitive race. Fourteen months later, she’s in Sochi in a U.S. uniform competing in snowboardcross.
But she appreciates, too, being able to apply a longer, big-picture approach to her ongoing quest for Paralympic gold the next time around in 2018 in PyeongChang.
“Leading up to the competition in Sochi, I was just kind of along for the ride,” admitted the 25-year-old Colorado native. “Now I view what I’m doing very differently, and it’s awesome having that four-year run-up to 2018. And seeing that the competition has stepped it up a lot is keeping me very focused on what I want to do.”
For the moment, that means a new “hit list” of things to work on during breaks from the IPC World Cup circuit — like the one now, before racing resumes in Europe next month.
Duce had a productive February on the North American leg — a silver and a bronze in snowboard-cross in Aspen, Colorado, and two bronze medals a week later at Big White despite “waking up the morning we were to leave (for British Columbia) with one of the worst colds of my life.”
But as rewarding as the medals have been, equally rewarding is the progress she’s seen from “working harder this season than I ever have.”
“There were aspects of my riding I knew were weak — especially my starts,” she said. “I tended to get beat out of the gate quite a bit. I’ve really been working on technical starts and my speed in starts and made a huge step. I think I’m more comfortable in the air and in my technical riding, too.”
This from a competitor who was second in the world cup standings last year (LL2) and collected a silver medal in snowboard-cross and a bronze in banked slalom at last year’s IPC Snowboard World Championships.
But Duce has been on something of a mission since her Paralympic Games experience in Sochi, where she wound up fifth in the sport’s debut there and learned a couple lessons.
“I messed up — significantly,” said Duce, who was ranked second in the world going into the event. “I was very confident, but I didn’t go in with the proper gear and I snapped my prosthetic foot the day before my race. So really, during the Sochi race, I was riding on a broken foot, and anybody who watched could tell you it didn’t go well.
“I just wasn’t prepared for something like that to happen. The rest of it was awesome — we had such a phenomenal coaching staff that any lack of preparation was really on the athlete. So now I carry an unbelievable amount of gear. Extra feet — really, enough stuff to make a whole leg.”
Duce had her right leg amputated at the age of 18 months after being born without a fibula and most of her foot and ankle bones. But support and acceptance came easily growing up in the tiny town of Ouray, Colorado, population 700 — as it does to this day, as when every business in town painted its windows as a way to cheer her on in Sochi. And in a place where outdoor activity is part of the DNA, it’s hardly a surprise that Duce gravitated to adaptive sports.
Her first love was kayaking — which is what she was immersed in during that brief time she called her car home.
“To be honest, I wasn’t doing very well in college,” Duce explained. “I was in about my sixth year — close to a bachelor’s degree, but not knowing what I wanted to do with it and not very motivated to finish. I was working in a kayak shop and living out of my car because, well, I just didn’t have a reason to have a house. I had a good friend who once told me, ‘Everybody should spend some time living in their car’ and, really, I learned a lot about myself.”
Soon she was approached about applying her recreational snowboard skills to racing, and since she was “looking for an excuse” to play hooky, the match was made — and she won a national championship that first winter.
Her competitive instincts have been further whetted by the sport’s move away from time trials to head-to-head racing.
“It’s just a whole other element I love so much more,” Duce said. “It’s not as static. Time trials are just you, going as fast as you can, picking the perfect line and not many variables. With another person on the course, it’s not always the fastest rider, it’s the more aggressive one who picks the better line or who is better under pressure. There are just more unknowns in every race.”
That adventurous spirit has her looking forward to dealing with the many new issues “that might throw you off your game” at the European stops in France and Italy she didn’t ride last year, when they were canceled due to snow conditions. Indeed, dealing with the emotional challenges was what she relished most about Sochi.
“It’s intimidating, for sure,” Duce said, “but to be able to control that intimidation and find the joy and loving it — it’s why I do what I do.”