There were times last year when Brenna Huckaby ached to be back on the snow, charging down a course to another medal.
After winning a world championship in para-snowboardcross at the age of 19 in 2015, she couldn’t wait to keep things rolling in 2016.
Yet Huckaby had to take a seat for a year for the birth of her daughter, Lilah, who arrived in May. She was back training about six weeks later and raced in November, but the year was basically a time to take a step back, pay attention to her baby, get used to her new life and prepare for a comeback in 2017.
“It was hard to watch all the people I compete against just race without me,” she said. “Whereas I was always on the podium with them, I had to just sit there on the sidelines and be like, ‘Oh, I wish I could be there.’ But it just kind of pushed me harder when I got back in. I want to be up there. I want to be up there again. So I made sure to train so I could be up on the podium again.”
It didn’t take her long.
In November she won three world cup banked slalom races in her LL1 class at Landgraaf in the Netherlands, then followed in January with a pair of victories in snowboardcross at Lake Tahoe, California. But her comeback truly was completed at the 2017 World Para Snowboard Championships at Big White in Canada in February, when she streaked to victories in snowboardcross and banked slalom against the most elite field she’d faced since 2015.
Huckaby admitted to being nervous before competing in snowboardcross because she’d only had the one outing in that discipline at Tahoe before the world championships. But she won all her heats, which gave her some confidence.
She recalls thinking, “Oh, I totally have this if I can stay on my board.”
In the final she beat Cecile Hernandez-Cervellon of France by two to three board lengths, despite Hernandez-Cervellon holding the lead until the second-to-last turn.
“I just had a cleaner line and snaked her on the inside of the turn,” Huckaby said. “She went wider, she went pretty standard, and I saw a little opportunity of a gap and snaked her on the inside.”
In banked slalom, couldn’t complete a single training run.
“Sometimes you get in weird funks,” she said. So, she didn’t go into finals with much optimism. But she put down the fastest time in her first run, was disqualified in her second and then had a great third run to win gold, beating out Hernandez-Cervellon and American teammate Amy Purdy.
“My third run I was like, ‘Well, you know, I still have the lead but not by much, so I just need to put the hammer down,’” Huckaby said.
Huckaby will try to keep the momentum going at the IPC World Cup Finals, which also serves as a test event for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, beginning March 8.
She’s hopeful that a year from now she’ll be on her way to those Games, but believes she needs to keep fine-tuning.
“I feel like there’s a lot of things I need to work on,” she said. “Oh my goodness, I don’t think I’ll ever be prepared. Every little thing that I can fix just gets me one step closer, and so every single day I’m working on something new or work on old bad habits. I’ll be as ready as I can be but it’ll never be perfect.”
She does believe that she’s a much better snowboarder after taking the year off. She had several months of good training and feels stronger physically. Plus, she worked with a sports psychologist to change her mental approach.
Before, she says she never took time to truly set her mind on the racing at hand. Now she prepares the night before, visualizes what she wants to do and focuses on herself, not her competition.
With two more world championships on her résumé, she admits she’s come a long way fast in the sport. She first got on a snowboard in 2012, two years after losing her right leg to cancer She’d been a competitive gymnast, and tried to continue in that sport after losing her leg, but decided to try something else. She sampled water skiing, soccer and swimming before discovering snowboarding. She knew she’d found what she was looking for the first time she tried it.
Huckaby credits her gymnastics training for the way she’s succeeded on the slopes. She says gymnastics was about body awareness, balance and fearlessness, and “that’s everything you need in snowboarding.”
Now she’s excited to be competing again, only this time with a bit busier — and fuller — life with Lilah.
“It’s definitely very hard,” she said of having to leave her daughter to compete. “I want nothing more than to be with my daughter all the freaking time, you know? But life doesn’t work like that.
“But I do it for her because I want to give her a better life and I want to show her that just because things are thrown in your way doesn’t mean you have to stop and give up. Keep pushing, no matter what. It’s hard, but at the same time it gives me a little extra drive.”
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.