(Photo courtesy of Jamie Blanek)
Jamie Blanek’s determination goes all the way back to a hospital bed.
And even before then.
Following a roadside car crash in February 2021, she remembers waking up in an intensive care unit and locking her eyes with a surgeon as a serious conversation carried on.
“I told him I’m an athlete, dancer. I have to be able to snowboard,” she said.
That one moment was where a Texas girl’s dream toward the Paralympic Winter Games 2026 Milano Cortina began. It started in a hospital with a leg amputation. In less than a year, she was on a snowboard in Park City, Utah, doing exactly what she was determined to do.
“It was on my birthday,” said Blanek, a former Miss Waco and dancer who is now 32 years old and working at a boutique in Park City when she’s not training. “I went down the mountain. It was so awesome.”
In June she joined four-time Paralympic medalist Brenna Huckaby, 2022 Paralympian Katy Maddry and three other rising snowboarders at a U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding development camp held at Mount Hood, Oregon.
Blanek’s determination rose up again.
“She is hungry,” U.S. Paralympic Snowboarding assistant coach Mike Jennings said. “She’s going out and working her tail off, searching for every bit of information she can get to try and improve as quickly as possible.”
It’s all about snowboarding.
“That was my fuel through my entire recovery and then my training after,” Blanek said. “I wanted to snowboard.”
Blanek trained for one day with Team Utah Snowboarding, then received an invitation from Jennings to participate in the developmental camp at Mount Hood. It’s all part of the dream.
“Just the fact that I’m on the radar of the U.S. Para Snowboard Team and now I’m a part of this development program, it’s mindboggling to me,” she said. “I’m just a girl from Texas. Snow isn’t a thing there, but here I am, chasing this dream down the mountain. I’m super grateful and really excited about where this is going to go.”
There have been anxious moments. Lots of them.
Prior to her accident, in which her leg was crushed by an oncoming car while she tried to help others at the side of a road, Blanek turned to snowboarding because skiing just didn’t work out.
“I never really was super great at it,” she said, laughing. “I could get it, I could go down the mountain, but I was really bad at stopping. I had some really bad crashes.”
When she arrived at Mount Hood, everything was new. And it was awkward.
“It’s so interesting to see like the first day how I was super frustrated. But, of course, it had been three months since I had been on the snow,” Blanek said. “Of course, the rest of the girls are at a higher level than I am. So I was feeling a bit frustrated. But then after day two, day three, day four, I just kept getting better and better. And that’s what it is right now for me, it’s a learning process.”
Blanek came to camp as “probably the greenest of the group,” in the words of her coach, Jennings.
The green disappeared quickly.
“I’m learning so much every time I’m on the snow,” she said. “I was learning from Mike … I was learning from Brenna and from all the other girls. Information overload. Then, you kind of, the next day, see what sticks. From there, you work on, this makes sense, how can I apply this? That’s what I do every time I go into training. I’m going to work on something, but I’m also going to learn something and try something new.”
The next step is international classification, a complex process coordinated by World Para Snowboard and likely to occur in November in Europe. And then it’s on to the mountains to compete.
Dennae Russell, another snowboarder at the developmental camp who did compete this past winter, had words of advice for Blanek.
“She’s still learning like I am,” Blanek said. “She said the best thing for her has been to just compete. Where you’re going to learn is out there on the course. So I’m looking forward to that.”
An international competition will mark another milestone in the journey for Blanek, who participated in a nine-week rehabilitation and training program with the Adaptive Training Foundation in Carrollton, Texas, six months after her accident.
“I have a great community around me that if I ever feel sorry for myself for whatever reason, I can just look to my friends and say, ‘Well, he’s doing this and he doesn’t have any legs, so I can do more.’ Or look at another friend and say, ‘She is a quadriplegic and she’s doing this right now, so I need to be doing more,’” Blanek said.
“I’m inspired by people around me.”
One of those inspirational people is Huckaby, a two-time Paralympian and Team Utah member who won two gold medals in her Paralympic debut in 2018.
“I was inspired by Brenna because I didn’t know if I would be able to snowboard and then I came across her on social media,” Blanek said. “And I was like, she is my goal. Following her journey and learning from her has just been incredible for me.”
Not long from now the two could be competing together, both on prosthetic right legs.
“She’s a super amazing athlete and competitor,” Blanek said. “She has a gymnastics background and I have a dance background. We grew up competing, so we have that fight in us. I really look forward to being able to be on her level and to be able to compete with her.”
Until then, it’s Italy.
“That’s the only thing I can think about is Italy 2026,” she said. “I tell everyone, I’m training for the Paralympics, I’m training for the Paralympics. I am. I have achieved absolutely every single goal that I’ve set for myself since my accident.
“I just have done so much to make sure that I can have a fulfilling life,” Blanek said. “For me, the Paralympics is my next big goal.”