Hunter Woodhall never let his disability bother him. But getting picked last in gym class? That completely got under his skin.
Woodhall grew up wanting to be successful in sports just like his brothers. But unlike them, he was a double amputee. He was born with a congenital birth defect called fibular hemimelia, which meant he had part of his fibula bone missing. At age 1, he had a bilateral Syme’s amputation to remove both feet.
He learned to walk with prosthetics and functioned like any other kid in day-to-day life. Then he grew old enough to question why he was a little different than the other kids.
Woodhall went from a kid getting picked last on the playground to a kid who matured into an elite athlete. He won the Utah high school state championship in the 400-meter a few weeks ago against able-bodied peers. Now he’s running for a chance to make it to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games at this weekend’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“The biggest difference between a state meet and this is obviously the enormity of the meet,” said Woodhall, who’ll be a senior this fall at Syracuse (Utah) High School. “To have the opportunity to go to the Paralympic Games is incredible. We’re just trying not to overwhelm ourselves with nerves and emotions.”
Nerves may be all that can stop Woodhall from making it to Rio. His state championship time of 47.63 seconds in the 400 set a new American record at the time.
Woodhall said his race is simple once he gets through the toughest part — the first 30 meters after leaving the starting blocks.
“In the backstretch I relax and open up,” said Woodhall, who has a powerful, long stride on the running devices most commonly known as blades. “I kick it in during the last 120 meters, and I’m getting better at closing races.”
He said part of his training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, is working on better starts and stronger finishes. He also competes in the 200-meter, but said his main focus will be the 400 this year.
Woodhall is a prep star who is already a favorite on the speaking tour.
“A lot of people go through trials in life, not just those with disabilities,” Woodhall said. “I’m a firm believer in the fact that God puts obstacles in life to make someone become a stronger, better person.”
Woodhall doesn’t draw the line at just track. His list of sports has also included at various times soccer, baseball, basketball, football, wrestling, snow skiing, knee boarding and wakeboarding. He credits a strong support system in his family for allowing him to dabble in other sports and reach for his dreams.
“I followed my brothers’ influences and my parents never held me back,” Woodhall said. “Sometimes I had to figure out how to do it, but there can be a different way to get to the same solution.”
Woodhall began running competitively in fifth grade, and he said the Shriners organization helped purchase the blades for him to run.
He became a member of the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field team in 2015. At last year’s IPC Athletics World Championships in Qatar, he ran a personal best to win a bronze medal in the 200-meter with a time of 22.09 seconds. He won silver in the same meet in the 400 meters at 49.05, which at the time was his personal best.
Woodhall said he’s still learning how to train and compete on the larger scale of Paralympic level since it involves so much travel.
“In high school you never have to drive more than a couple of hours,” Woodhall said. “Now we fly around the world and across the country in different time zones.”
Woodhall said he admires Michael Johnson’s running ability and said South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius brought more recognition to athletes with disabilities in 2012 when he competed against able-bodied Olympians in London.
The prep sensation said he’s getting stacks of letters from colleges, and that he looks forward to the recruiting process that begins July 1. He also didn’t rule out the possibility of one day competing against the best in the world — able-bodied or not. But that thought will have to wait.
“Right now we’re focused on the trials and doing our best there,” Woodhall said. “I’m just worrying about my race and my performance. If I take care of the things I can control, then I feel confident about my chances.”
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.