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Kevan Hueftle Had To Beat His Alcoholism Before He Could Become A Top Contender For The 2021 Paralympics

By Joanne C. Gerstner | Oct. 10, 2020, 9 a.m. (ET)

Kevan Hueftle smiles as he leads his kids on horseback (left) and poses with his family in front of their home in Nebraska (right). 

 

Kevan Hueftle does not spare his words, nor seek any sympathy.

He had a life-altering choice to make in August 2015, and he prayed he would be strong enough to follow through. He could keep drinking all day and night and maintain his life as a functioning alcoholic. Or Hueftle would stop drinking, cold turkey, on his own and try to reclaim his life for himself, his family and his friends.

He delivered the verdict on Aug. 7, 2015: he stopped drinking and has been sober since.

And the world that has opened since is remarkable.

Hueftle rediscovered his love of running in 2017, something he did successfully in high school at middle distance. Upon returning to the sport he set out to become one of the best Paralympic sprinters in the U.S., and in three short years he has become a bona fide contender to compete in the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2021.

“I am not going to lie and tell you this has been easy, because it is not. But I knew if I kept drinking, I would lose it all,” said Hueftle, 35. “I was in so much pain, physically, mentally, emotionally. I was fighting depression, anxiety, anger, and just drinking all the time so I could forget. Aug. 7, 2015 is when my life came back.”

Hueftle’s true breakthrough came last year.

In late August 2019, he won the 100 and took silver in the 200 at the Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru — his first international medals. Three months later, he won a silver medal in the 100 and placed fourth in the 200 at the 2019 World Para Athletics championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“I know it doesn’t make sense that a 35-year-old guy can do this, but if there is something you tell me I can’t do, I will die proving you wrong,” Hueftle said. “I like being the underdog, people not expecting anything from me. But then I get it done.”

Kevan Hueftle's kids help him on the farm.

 

Hueftle’s story has many layers. He is a farmer in Eustis, Nebraska, running a family operation with crops and the Lazy Creek Beef Company, which grows, processes and sells Red Angus cattle. He is married to Nicole, and they have two children. Meanwhile, Hueftle has depression, with some days really getting to him. The stress of running a farm, during a worldwide economic slump, pandemic and trade tariffs is worrying him.

He does not want to make his fairy tale ride to Team USA out to be smooth. 

Hueftle thinks he has struggled with depression and anxiety for most of his life. But he never dealt with the episodes as a serious issue. He didn’t know anybody who had struggles with mental health, and he thought he could hide it all from family and friends.

Alcohol helped take the edge off his fears. He remembers being the fun guy in college, all the while trying to work through what was happening in his heart and head.

Everything changed in 2005, when was severely hurt in a hunting accident. He was toting a rifle, preparing to shoot a coyote. The rifle went off, just as he was exiting his truck, and the bullet tore apart his left foot.

Kevan Hueftle completes various tasks on his family's farm in Nebraska. 

 

Hueftle had multiple surgeries over a near two-week span, trying to save and reconstruct the mangled foot. He eventually chose to amputate the foot in order to have a better life. He received a prosthesis, and moved on with his life on the farm. But what Hueftle didn’t have under control was the potent mix of pain, addiction, depression and growing anxiety. 

“You tell yourself you will be fine, but when your leg hurts all the time, it starts building and building,” he said. “I started drinking more and more, and it turned into drinking to survive. When you are depressed, you just want to forget about all of it. I was drinking all day long to escape. People know I drank, but they didn’t know that if I met you at the bar, I had five drinks before I got there. Then I’d have three with you. And then more when I went home.

“I was getting freaked out by things that didn’t make sense, and that was my anxiety talking 1,000 percent. It was not a good place.”

Hueftle is now very open about his struggles and successes. He has met many others, such as friends, who have shared that they are going through the same issues. 

He sometimes really would like to have a drink but knows if he even has one… he will be gripped by addiction again. So, he doesn’t go there.

He wants to share his story with groups, especially high school students, to let them know that struggling is real, mental health issues are common and to keep pushing to be your best.

Kevan Hueftle drives the combine (left) and smiles from a pickup truck (right).

 

He follows his own advice every day, as running his farm is not easy. Hueftle works 12-14 hours, performing many very physical tasks. He feels the grind is a form of training, since sometimes he cannot do a strict regimen of world-class track training. 

Hueftle remains focused on the 2021 para-track season, with his eye on the Paralympic Games.

“I think everything I do is part of the goals I set for myself, I keep pushing harder to prove myself,” he said. “I don’t take praise well, and it’s hard for me to acknowledge the good things that have happened in track. I’m better at beating myself up.”

He already has been moved to tears, just by seeing his Team USA gear for the first time.

The UPS deliveryman brought a package to his house last August, and Hueftle opened it immediately. It was his USA-emblazoned track uniform for Lima. He touched it, almost in disbelief, and cried. The UPS man cried too, seeing the sight of the uniform and Hueftle’s reaction.

Hueftle quickly realized he had spoiled the opening surprise for his family, so he repacked it, and did it all over again later in the house. They were just as emotional.

But the capper of this moment was when he realized the date. 

Aug. 7, 2019. Four years sober to the day.

And now holding a Team USA uniform and looking ahead to his future.

Joanne C. Gerstner

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.

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Kevan Hueftle