Brittani Coury is just three months into her first full season on the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding Team, and she already has a world cup bronze medal in the Lower Limb 2 classification.
Above the surface, it’s been a swift ride to the top for Coury; but below, it’s been an excruciating 14-year journey.
Coury, 31, grew up practically living on the slopes in Durango, Colorado, where she was skiing or snowboarding every chance she could get. By the time she reached high school, she was the only girl who could keep up with the boys on their boards.
“I’ve always loved snowboarding. Since the first day I put a snowboard on my feet, I fell in love, and with that love grew a passion,” Coury said. “Going off a jump for me was just freeing and liberating. I was just in control and could just pause life for a moment to be in the air and enjoy the hang time. I became a snowboard instructor and was sharing my passion with other people. My goal in life became to get as many days on snow as I could.”
But on Christmas Eve in 2003, a 17-year-old Coury tumbled down a mountain near her home after hitting an icy spot while snowboarding with friends. She paid a visit to the emergency room, where she was told her ankle was broken and she needed to stay off the slopes for a couple of months.
The swelling persisted beyond that timeframe, though, and those couple of months slowly turned into years.
Doctors couldn’t pinpoint the problem.
In 2006, Coury learned she had bone spurs throughout her ankle area and had surgery to remove them. She returned to snowboarding, but after a few months suffered ankle problems once again.
Over the next five years, she underwent nine ankle surgeries and struggled to overcome her injury through rehabilitation. Finally, in June 2011, with her ankle so deformed, Coury opted to have her lower leg amputated below the knee.
For an adrenaline junkie who loved extreme sports — everything from downhill mountain biking to wake surfing — it goes without saying that it was a tough pill to swallow. Luckily, Coury was surrounded by supporters. Her roommate at the time encouraged her to get involved with physical therapy or nursing, taking into account how much time she had spent being briefed on her own injuries.
“I wanted to help other people out, because I figured my days of snowboarding were halted with all the surgeries,” Coury said. “So, I decided to focus on my education after my amputation.”
Coury became an EMT so she could still be on the snow, serving as a ski patrol member.
In 2014, she found herself tuning into the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014, watching Amy Purdy win bronze for the U.S. women, and Evan Strong, Mike Shea and Keith Gabel complete a podium sweep for the U.S. men in snowboarding’s Paralympic debut.
Coury’s first reaction?
“I can do that.”
Or at least she figured she could try.
Coury promised herself she’d sign up for one race as a Para snowboarder. If she did OK, she’d pursue the sport. If not, at least she’d have no regrets.
Her first competitive race since 2007 became the Dew Tour last December in Breckenridge, Colorado. She used the same gear and equipment she had a decade prior, and she’d spent just 12 days on snow as an amputee prior to the competition.
Her one goal for the race was to not come in last place — that would determine whether or not she’d pursue the sport.
“I don’t mind going all-in for snowboarding, but I don’t want to waste my time or anybody else’s time,” Coury told potential coaches heading into the race.
She finished second to last in the race.
That was all the confidence she needed. She would pursue the sport.
Coury quickly integrated herself into the Para snowboarding circuit, taking time off from her job as a nurse supervisor to compete in January’s NorAm and world cup races in Lake Tahoe, where she then qualified for the world cup final and PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Test Event. With more training and gym time under her belt by March, Coury would finish sixth in both the snowboardcross and banked slalom disciplines in Korea.
Coury then opened up her 2017-18 campaign with a bronze-medal finish in banked slalom at the first world cup stop in September in Treble Cone, New Zealand.
She wouldn’t have made the podium without the help of her U.S. teammates. In New Zealand, three-time world bronze medalist Nicole Roundy lent her snowboard to Coury, Paralympic silver medalist Shea let her borrow a pair of goggles for a competition run and Paralympic bronze medalist Gabel provided her a place to stay prior to the competition, also offering her riding tips so she can be as fast as three-time world champion Brenna Huckaby.
“The camaraderie that we have on Team USA is like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” Coury said.
Nearly halfway through the season, Coury ranks fourth in snowboardcross and seventh in banked slalom on the world cup circuit. She will find out by February if she’s qualified for PyeongChang, and could be a solid contender for the podium.
All it took was that second-to-last-place finish to get the momentum going.
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.