Two-time Paralympic medalist Hunter Woodhall became the first double-amputee to earn an NCAA Division I scholarship in track and field when he signed with Arkansas on Friday.
The Utah native chose to forgo pursuing an agent or sponsors for the chance to compete in college after defying the odds in what turned out to be an extensive recruiting process.
“I think it’s going to put me on another level, just being on that playing field with that much competition and having those extra resources,” Woodhall said of competing in NCAA Division I track and field.
“I had the choice to either go pro or run college, and a mixture of wanting to break down barriers and change perceptions, along with just getting that experience at the next level was the biggest factor for me in that decision.”
Woodhall’s decision came just two weeks after breaking Utah’s 400-meter state record at his rival high school’s track. He clocked a blazing time of 46.56 seconds — 0.14 seconds better than his bronze-medal-winning time at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 and the fourth-fastest time among U.S. scholastic runners in 2017.
“It was the pinnacle of everything that’s come together,” Woodhall said. “It was a very, very long process to say the least. I’ve been grinding with that goal since seventh grade, when I was running 70 seconds in the 400 meters. At the time, it kind of seemed like an impossible feat. Throughout the years, a lot of hard work came together and all of the excitement and emotion just all hit me at once.”
The NCAA recruiting process has been anything but customary for Woodhall, who had his legs amputated below the knee at 11 months old after the fibulas in his lower legs ceased to form.
Woodhall received almost no interest from college coaches for years, and nobody reached out to him before or after November’s early signing period, despite having posted some of the top high school track times in the country.
Ultimately, with the help of his coach and 1984 Olympic champion Joaquim Cruz, along with Challenged Athletes Foundation co-founder Bob Babbitt, he started breaking his way through.
“I got my times to the point where I’m able to compete on the NCAA stage, we just needed colleges to see what I was capable of and realize that I’m just a normal athlete you didn’t need to pay any special precautions to,” Woodhall said. “Once they figured that out, it was a lot easier and a lot more colleges contacted me.”
BYU contacted Woodhall first, and then two months later colleges began approaching him en masse.
But with that came an onslaught of never-ending question and answer sessions from collegiate athletic departments: Could he run on an indoor track? Which way do his blades swing when he runs? How does he train? Is his regimen different than an able-bodied athlete?
And, the biggest question of them all: Is he allowed to run in the NCAA as a double amputee?
At the moment, the NCAA doesn’t have any rules that prohibit an amputee runner from competing in open meets, though many recruiters and coaches are afraid to wade into an area of the sport that has not yet been fully explored at the collegiate level in the United States.
Double-amputee Aimee Mullins competed for Georgetown two decades ago and Rio 2016 Paralympian AJ Digby began competing for Mount Union — an NCAA Division III program — this past year, but no double-amputee had ever received a Division I scholarship.
Woodhall, described by the New York Times in March as having a “winsome personality,” never complained throughout the process. He always found the positives, striving to break down barriers.
At an indoor track and field event this season, when asked to provide a biography for recruiters, he even wrote: “In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have legs.”
Woodhall’s decision came down to scholarship offers from four schools — BYU, Arkansas, North Carolina and Long Beach State — and he ultimately chose Arkansas, as that’s where he felt he would succeed the most as a student-athlete at the end of the day.
“It will open the door,” Woodhall said of jumping to the NCAA stage. “I think that door right now is closed, and we’re working really hard to break it open and push it down and show the world what is possible. I think a lot of people see a disability and instantly they go to ‘what can’t they do’ instead of ‘what can they do.’
“I think this is a step in the right direction not only for disabled athletes, but for everybody. I think we can live in a society where people aren’t putting so many limitations on others.”
But first, prior to launching his NCAA career, Woodhall has further business. He will take to the international stage once again when he competes in the World Para Athletics Championships from July 14-23 in London. He’s hoping to compete in the 200- and 400-meter T43 races, along with the 4x100-meter for the T42-47 classifications.
Woodhall was just 16 when he won 400-meter silver and 200-meter bronze in his international debut at the 2015 world championships in Doha, Qatar, and he was the youngest athlete in the field when he won silver and bronze in the 200- and 400-meter races, respectively, at the Rio 2016 Paralympics.
All that’s missing in his international medal collection is gold.
“Going into London, that’s obviously the goal, and I think I’m doing everything I have to do to get to that point,” Woodhall said.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.