Noah Elliott competes in the men's snowboardcross UL small final at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 on March 12, 2018 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Four years ago, Noah Elliott was 16 years old and watching the Paralympic Winter Games on television from the hospital room in St. Louis where he was living while undergoing treatment for osteosarcoma, the most common type of bone cancer found in children and teens.
He still had both his legs.
He still hoped to one day get back to skateboarding, the sport he fell in love with at the age of 7.
Flash forward to Monday, when Elliott stood on the podium at the Paralympics in PyeongChang, having won the bronze medal in men’s snowboardcross in the LL1 classification. In a surreal full-circle kind of moment, many of the teammates who are alongside him at these Paralympics are the same athletes he watched on television four years earlier and who helped him get to where he is today.
“When I was in treatment I was watching (Keith) Gabel, (Evan) Strong and (Mike) Shea,” said Elliott, referring to the U.S. riders who swept the podium in the event’s 2014 Paralympic debut, “and it’s crazy that throughout this whole competition season I’ve been able to build really good relationships with these guys and they’ve taught me a lot and showed me the ropes.
“To be able to ride with them and share this moment is crazy. Like, wow, who’s the next kid who’s going to be watching us?”
The influence Elliott’s teammates have had on his Paralympic career doesn’t end there, but first there was the road to becoming an adaptive snowboarder in the first place.
Elliott was diagnosed with cancer in 2013 and began chemotherapy. Then he had a limb salvage operation that involved a total knee replacement and the replacement of his tibia with a titanium rod, Elliott said. He’d have to learn how to walk again. Doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to skateboard, ride a bike, jump or play any sports.
A year later, Elliott was still in pain. They found out his body was rejecting the metal.
“They gave me 10 days to make a decision and I said, ‘Cut my leg off. I want to try to skateboard again,’” he said.
Doctors amputated his left leg above the knee on Jan. 30, 2015.
Six months later he tried snowboarding for the first time on the new prosthesis. It was a walking leg, not built for riding a board on snow, so it wasn’t easy. But Elliott was already hooked on the idea of becoming a competitive snowboarder.
He credits Brenna Huckaby, who won the gold medal in women’s snowboardcross in her Paralympic debut on Monday, for helping that become a reality.
Huckaby had the same cancer and they’d met years earlier at a camp and kept in touch. When he decided to amputate his leg he started asking her questions about how to get started competing — what he needed to know, where he needed to go, etc.
He told her that one day they’d be snowboarding together.
“She laughed and said, ‘We will,’” he said. “She remembers that, 100 percent. Like, I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
His mind set on his goal, Elliott worked as a dishwasher, earned money through speaking engagements and started a GoFundMe to raise enough funds to move to Park City, Utah, and put everything he had into trying to make the Paralympic team.
He made the move just over one year ago.
Working at a snowboard shop on the mountain, Elliott said, he’d use his breaks to get in as many runs as he could, downing a muffin for lunch as he went back to work. On days off he was riding from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
In April 2017, he caught the eye of national team coaches. Believing he had a chance, they told him to start the 2017-18 season in New Zealand and compete as much as he could moving forward. He made his international debut then continued to compete in snowboardcross and banked slalom in as many world cup events as he could, continuing to raise money to support his travel the whole time.
Along the way he earned enough podium finishes that he qualified for the Paralympics and was officially named to the U.S. Paralympic Team in February.
On Friday he will compete in the Paralympic debut of banked slalom.
When he won the bronze medal in snowboardcross and teammate Mike Schultz won gold, there was another moment of flashing back to earlier in his journey. Schultz designed the knee and foot components used in the prosthetics that many snowboarders, including Elliott, now use.
“A few weeks after they cut off my leg I was watching TV in my room and randomly this talk show came on,” he said. “Here’s this guy, Mike Schultz, talking about his prosthetic and sharing his story and I was like, ‘No way, that’s the leg I need,’” he said. “I paused it and called my mom and said, ‘That’s the leg I need.’ I was thinking back to Brenna and sent her a message asking what leg she used, and she said, ‘You need to talk to Mike.’ All these dots were connecting. The whole Para team for snow and adaptive sports are probably the only reason I’ve been able to get to where I am today.”
And, of course, Elliott has no regrets about his decision to amputate.
“Not at all, not at all,” he said. “I’m so pumped.”