Brittani Coury holds a Paralympic medal from the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 and a stethoscope.
U.S. Paralympic snowboarder Brittani Coury sees her life journey as a progression that has led to this critical moment. As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic, Coury is transforming from being an elite athlete, fresh from competition, to her other career — as a registered nurse.
Coury, who won a silver medal in the banked slalom snowboarding event at the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, went back to work last week at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City.
“This is the biggest social thing we are facing in my lifetime,” said Coury, who turned 34 last month. “I am mentally ready and prepared for this. I am not afraid of getting the virus, because I am here to help my patients. I am not afraid of dying either, because if that happens, it’s because I was helping others and I went out doing what I loved.
“But I am most afraid of passing it on to somebody. We all are concerned and taking the precautions. We are all being as super safe as we can.”
Coury is assigned to the acute internal medicine floor right now, which will not have COVID-19 patients. But she has volunteered to help with the separate COVID-19 wards, to spell tired colleagues and bolster the staff if the patient levels increase.
As in other parts of the country, Salt Lake City’s COVID-19 outbreak has not yet peaked, so the worst is yet to come.
“I go in knowing it’s where I want to be,” Coury said. “I love going to work every day. I love it as much as I love snowboarding. My job is such an opportunity to give back. We’re all part of the same team when we are snowboarding, no matter what country we are from, we all help each other out when we need to. I see that here now with this crisis: we are all one team, and we are getting together as a country and a world to take care of each other during this.”
Coury’s switch to nursing is a normal occurrence, as she goes back to work in the summer after the snowboarding season is over. The pandemic made the change happen a bit faster, as she, along with the rest of the U.S. Para snowboarding team, had their stay at the World Para Snowboarding World Cup Finals in Hafjell, Norway, end abruptly.
The event, which was scheduled from March 11-15, had one day of competition before it was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns. The U.S. team rushed home, hoping to get back before flights became scarce from Europe.
Coury understood the urgency and agreed it was best to cancel, but still wonders what could have transpired. She had won a bronze medal in the dual banked slalom event that day and was excited for the snowboardcross to come.
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“I was on a roll, I really was feeling it, I was in a good head space,” she said. “I was so tired that day from competition, so I just went to sleep. Then the coaches banged on the door at like 2 a.m. and said we had to get packed up to leave to get home. It was all over. And that was it. You have to go with the flow and look at the perspective on a larger scale. It’s better for us to look back and say we overreacted by coming home than saying I wish I had come back from Norway sooner.”
Coury’s journey to becoming a nurse is directly related to snowboarding. A native of Durango, Colorado, she has loved the sport since childhood. However, in 2003, a bad snowboarding accident shattered her right ankle, and the joint never healed well even after multiple operations over several years. So Coury chose to amputate below her right knee in 2011, and it was during that process she discovered her love of nursing from the caretakers who helped her regain her health.
She chose to go to school after that experience, first becoming an EMT, then going on to Pueblo Community College for her bachelor’s in nursing. She also returned to snowboarding, and soon became part of the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding national team.
Doctors, physical therapists and nurses were there for her when she needed them most, she said. And now, she feels she can be there for others who now need her medical training and compassion in their time of hardship.
“You don’t know where life takes you, but I can say that I am now full circle,” Coury said. “You may not understand your circumstances, but there can be some positivity coming out of the tough times. I know what it is like to need help from nurses, and now I can give back the love and care I received.
“This is the time where we are all truly one people. We all hurt right now, as we see people scared and suffering. My heart goes out to all of them, and I hope I can be part of their healing.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.