Athletes pose with their snowboards on snow at Mt. Hood.
One of the downsides to being a Paralympic hopeful is sometimes you have to go to summer school.
But in for six women this summer, the classroom was Mount Hood in Oregon and the subject was snowboarding.
Four Paralympic Winter Games hopefuls and a pair of Paralympians took to the mountain for a summer class in June.
“They always enjoy being on snow,” said Jessica Smith, the associate director for U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding and U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing.
Mike Jennings, a coach with the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding Team who ran a women’s developmental camp in June and a men’s camp in July, said the timing for the camps was perfect.
“(We) had the desire to get a group of development athletes together in a low stress situation where an actual competition was not involved so that we would really have the time to go back and really delve a little deeper into some fundamental skills,” he said.
Katy Maddry, a 2022 Paralympian from Wasilla, Alaska, participated in the women’s camp. She was joined by 2026 Paralympic hopefuls Dennae Russell of Sturgis, South Dakota; Isabelle Hicks, a nursing assistant in Utah; Rebecca Johnston, whose hometown of Hood River, Oregon, is located north of Mount Hood; and Jamie Blanek, a former Miss Waco from Texas who is entering her second year of snowboarding competition at age 32.
"It was so fun and empowering getting to snowboard with a group of all-female adaptive athletes for the first time ever," Johnston said. "I feel super lucky to be able to participate in camps like these and work with amazing coaches like Mike on my home mountain, and I’m looking forward to more development opportunities."
Jennings could see the comradery start to form quickly.
“I think they loved it,” Jennings said. “They definitely coalesced as a team extremely well.”
“I was pretty much the only guy there, quite a bit of estrogen flowing,” he added with a laugh. “I tried to keep my testosterone to a minimum
Noting that he was “pretty much the only guy there,” Jennings said he tried to stay in the background at times “so as to not get in the way of the information sharing that was going on from athlete to athlete.”
The camp, which was held at Timberline Lodge on the south side of Mount Hood, also featured three-time Paralympic gold medalist Brenna Huckaby as a mentor, as well as a team-bonding outing to an entertainment center featuring an escape-room adventure.
As the four-year quad begins toward the Paralympic Winter Games Milano Cortina 2026, U.S. Paralympics Snowboard administrators and coaches hope this year’s Mount Hood camps are the beginning of an initiative to develop and mentor up-and-coming snowboarders.
“One of our key initiatives in the next four years was really establishing more of that growth and development needed within the sport of Para snowboarding,” Smith said. “Development camps are just so great to bridge that gap between regional programs and the national team, and something that we want to start this year.”
The camp gave Jennings an opportunity to work with the athletes at a time when they weren’t preparing for a competition.
“That’s the type of thing that you do need to do in year one of a four-year quad,” he said. “The earlier in the season, the better. Just lay a solid foundation for ideally everything else that will be learned throughout the quad.
“Normally, in the midst of the season and (when) everyone’s at their home programs, it’s really hard to target some of the fundamental steps that they need to establish: getting into gates, riding features and that kind of stuff that sometimes gets lost with the travel in the winter.”
The women worked on using different parts of their boards and performing micro moves under the instruction of Jennings while he also stressed the importance of working in collaboration.
“The way I looked at it was that I wasn’t so much focused on just being a dictator and having everybody be quiet and listen to me,” said Jennings, an All-Ivy League football player at Columbia University who became a snowboard instructor in 2001. “It was more about fostering an environment of open information sharing between the athletes and then trying to oversee that and just make sure things are heading in the direction that we’re looking for them to head in. And if not, try to gently kind of ricochet it back into the route that I am looking for it to head.”
Among his teachings was how to move to the very front of the board, or the rear, and maintaining balance for tricks.
“The girls did that wonderfully,” Jennings said. “It got to the point that they were starting to press the board up into these crazy wheelies and then get it back in control and it was just like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t realize you were going to go, that it was going to take that well.’ It turned into just a sort of a lot of surprise out of the girls that, ‘Oh, that’s something I can do.’”
Soon, the athletes perfected their moves just in time for the camp arrival of Huckaby, who won two gold medals in her Paralympic debut in 2018 in PyeongChang and added another Paralympic gold medal in banked slalom this year in Beijing.
“When Brenna got there, they were able to kind of show off a little bit, some of the new stuff they had picked up,” Jennings said. “We were able to run with that because then Brenna was there to reinforce the information and we were able to continue progressing throughout the week.”
Huckaby was there not only to help with mentoring but also to work on her own moves.
“I mean, she’s not only a fun spirit just in person, but at the same time just a good driving force for the sport and to encourage other females that really have interest to get into it and just start the process,” Smith said.
The athletes’ determination boldly showed during their team-bonding outing to Cine Escapes in Gresham, Oregon. The concept of an escape-room adventure is that team members have to work together to solve a complex puzzle involving theatrics and clues in order to leave, or escape, the room.
“Wouldn’t you know, they wanted to do the hardest one,” Jennings said. “The girls loved that. They took right to it. Brenna stepped right up.”
And they succeeded in half of the allowable clues.
“They took the biggest challenge they could find there and conquered it,” Jennings said. “Another good opportunity just to coalesce as a group.”