Hunter Woodhall poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
As 2020 has shown us, life has more than its fair share of ups and downs.
It is how you deal with them that shows your character.
My journey has been challenging from the start. I was born with a congenital disease called fibular hemimelia, which means my lower legs never formed. My parents made the scary decision to follow the doctor’s recommendation and amputate my lower legs when I was 11 months old. Homeschooled until the fifth grade, my first school experience was filled with bullying from my peers.
While that prevented me from making many friends, I didn’t let that keep me down. Thanks to the terrific support of my parents and siblings, I participated in several sports. They were all fun, but eventually I kept going back to running. Our family did annual 5-kilometer fun runs and running was when I felt most comfortable.
It led to a very successful high school career at Syracuse High School, where I was a five-time Utah state champion and set records in the 400 meters and 4x400 relay. There was plenty of adversity there as critics thought I had an advantage by using carbon fiber legs, which were designed for running and different from my day-to-day prosthetics. I channeled that negativity and relied on the support of family and friends to become a better runner and climb the athletic ladder. Included in that ascent was winning two medals in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games (silver in the 200, bronze in the 400).
When it came time for college, I faced another obstacle. Despite my on-track success, recruiters weren’t busting down my door. But one school had faith in me and my abilities: Arkansas. Not only was it a big decision for me to become the first para-athlete to take an NCAA Division I track scholarship, Arkansas was taking a big risk on me. Track and field teams only get 12.6 scholarships for men — and there was no guarantee that I was going to be able to participate.
Every year, Arkansas has to file an appeal with the NCAA to allow me to compete, just one of the challenges I face as processes evolve and my critics remain steadfast. Still, I have persevered and thrived. In the competitive Southeastern Conference, I was an indoor and outdoor All-American in the 4x400 as a sophomore in 2019, when I also ran a personal-best 46.22 seconds in the 400 at the SEC Outdoor Championships. This spring, before the pandemic shut down the season, I was the anchor runner on the 4x400 team that won a silver medal at the SEC Indoor Championships and qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in the 4x400 and distance medley relays.
And while I have my eyes set on qualifying for next year’s Tokyo Paralympics, I also know that I need to be ready for the next chapter in my life. I am majoring in business marketing and currently co-own Giant Hoodies, an oversized hoodies company in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with Jonathan Montgomery and Matt Horner. We were in the process of renovating our office space when we got an exciting call that changed our business future: Giant Hoodies’ bleach-dye hoodies were going to be on Oprah Winfrey’s list of Favorite Things.
We were given 40 days’ notice so we could ramp up production before the announcement, which was at the beginning of November. Quickly, we decided we needed to find a new space and prepare to be bombarded by new customers with online orders. A pretty good ride for a business that just started this spring when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Starting up a new business also comes at a good time with the changes that are happening at the NCAA level regarding athletes and the ability to earn money under name, image or likeness guidelines.
There are some other extremely exciting things coming up that I can’t quite reveal yet as all the details haven’t been finalized, but it all goes to the same mentality.
No matter what others say or do, you control your destiny. Tune out the negative and focus on what you can do to make a positive impact every day.