Brenna Huckaby poses for a photo at the Team USA Media Summit on Sept. 27, 2017 in Park City, Utah.
When Brenna Huckaby found out she was going to lose her leg from osteosarcoma at 14, she was terrified. “I had never seen (an amputee) who looked ‘normal’ or had a normal life,” she said in a YouTube video. “I never saw anyone beautiful or with a family or with a career.”
Today, as the Paralympic gold medalist snowboarder isolates in Salt Lake City with her husband and two daughters, Huckaby is hard at work becoming that person for the next generation, using her social media pages to inspire others while she looks toward the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
Finding the time to pursue these goals, though, is quite the challenge. Between taking care of 3-year-old Lilah — who’s home from daycare due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and 2-month-old Sloan, Huckaby says, “I don’t sleep. I’m very tired all the time.” Huckaby keeps things interesting for Lilah with dance parties and picnics in her yard. At the same time, she deals with all the triumphs and challenges of having a newborn — “puke fests,” “tears from exhaustion,” and early morning wake-ups included.
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Casually covered in spit up, boob milk, tears from exhaustion, and love from my little girls. My brain has so much more to say about this motherhood journey but I’m too tired to type it. Good luck out there, parents. We got this... also very thankful for caffeine, the public library, and Daniel tiger. The end. #journeywithlilah #snugglingsloan
Going from one child to two was “eye-opening,” she says. But Huckaby is no stranger to life’s obstacles — at only 24, she has already faced plenty of them. As a Level 9 gymnast in 2010 (there are 10 levels in gymnastics before “elite,” or the Olympic level), Louisiana-born Huckaby was determined to make the lineup at Louisiana State University, one of the top-ranked programs in the country. But unexplained knee pain led to a cancer diagnosis; her amputation followed, ending her gymnastics career for good.
Up until that point, “my whole goal was to be a college gymnast,” says Huckaby. For the year after her amputation, Huckaby struggled to find her new path. She tried swimming; she tried water skiing. Finally, in December 2011, she went on a group ski trip. She insisted that she be allowed to snowboard because, as she says, “It reminded me of a balance beam.”
Snowboarding didn’t come easily for Huckaby. But she didn’t let that get her down — far from it. “If I’m not good at (something) I’m obsessed with finding a way to be good at it.” Soon, she was hooked: “I just fell in love with it like I did with gymnastics,” she says. “I hadn’t found anything like that since my amputation.”
Accompanied by her mother, Huckaby moved from subtropical Louisiana to Utah so she could pursue snowboarding. By then, her goals had already shifted from LSU to competing at the Paralympic Games. “I told everybody and their mom that I was going to be a Paralympic snowboarder, while I was living in Louisiana,” she says, laughing at herself. “But it wasn’t real until 2014 nationals when I had competed against other Paralympians and was able to get on the podium. And I was like, ‘Whoa, I could actually do this. This isn’t just something I’m telling people.’”
Huckaby’s rise in the sport was meteoric. At 19, she earned a gold and a silver medal at the 2015 world championships, followed by two golds in 2017 after taking time off to have Lilah. Then, she was named to the 2018 U.S. Paralympic Team on what she calls “one of the happiest days of my life.” At the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, she brought home gold medals in both of her events, banked slalom and snowboardcross. That same year, she became the first Paralympic athlete to appear in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
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Now isolating at her in-laws’ home in Utah, she’s focused on being a mom, but her future is always in the back of her mind. She wants to head to school in the fall to work toward a degree in special education. She’s thinking about dyeing her hair purple again. She somehow finds time to bike ride (“I have yet to train in the middle of the night, but I can totally see it coming”); she wants to get her endurance back up for a winter comeback. She doesn’t have a competition in mind yet for a return, but she has her sights set on Beijing 2022.
But while Huckaby looks to the future, she’s proud of what she has accomplished already: without a path presented to her, she still became the body positive amputee with a family and a career that she didn’t see at 14. She sees her work with magazines and brands as ways to empower others as she’s empowered herself. “Hopefully another amputee or whatever the disability may be — even if you don’t have a disability — they can feel empowered and inspired by those shots,” she said. Huckaby wants everyone to know that “you literally can do whatever you want with your life. It’s in your hands.”
In December, she decided to share her story herself, starting a YouTube channel about her life. “I get asked the same questions all the time,” she says. The channel is a way for her to share everything she’s learned and answer those questions: How did you lose your leg? Does the prosthetic hurt? Is it waterproof?
But Huckaby’s channel has since transformed into a way to help others who have dealt with the same challenges. “I don’t want them to have to figure it out as they go along,” she says. “I want it to already be laid out because I feel like I had to do a lot of figuring out as I’ve gone along, which means there’s been a lot of pain in my heart, and in my journey.”
Huckaby hopes to eliminate that struggle for others, showing amputees and young girls what they’re capable of, and how they can get there: “If I can share how I’ve gotten here every step of the way, then I can take away that pain for someone else and we can just skip that step and they can go straight into living a full life.”
“Hopefully it can help someone,” she says.
Jessica Taylor Price is a sportswriter from Somerville, Massachusetts, whose work has appeared in various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.