Noah Elliott competes in banked slalom in Beijing. (Photo: Mark Reis)
Stung by pain and looking at blood, snowboarder Noah Elliott faced a stunning reality less than a month before the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 were set to begin.
Two separate wounds on his amputated leg had merged into a bigger one. And it was infected. Surgery was needed because his femur bone had grown and punctured through his muscles.
But what about Beijing? What about his second Paralympic Games, in which he would be a medal contender after winning banked slalom gold and snowboardcross bronze in PyeongChang, and a world title in dual banked slalom in January?
“I’d worked so hard, I had already been through so much pain,” Elliott said. “I was one of the first people qualified on our team for the Paralympic team. I was ready to go and win. I knew I could. I knew I still had the potential to do that even with my leg in the situation and deal it was in.”
So he went to Beijing.
Needing help from his teammates even to do something so simple as go to an evening meal because he couldn’t carry his own plates, Elliott nearly medaled in the Paralympics. He placed fourth in banked slalom and sixth in snowboardcross.
“I was just amazed to be there and to be competing,” he said.
By the end of March, less than three weeks after the Paralympic Games ended, Elliott was in surgery for a revision of his amputated leg.
Now he is out of pain for the first time in nine months.
“It looks so much better than it ever has,” Elliott said. “I’m really excited because they cut off two more inches of my leg and reshaped my leg. But now the cool thing is I have more room for prosthetic components, which means my knees can finally be aligned properly.”
Elliott is now able to wear his new prosthetic leg all day when he was not able to use his prosthetic leg on competition trips this past winter until race day because of blisters that grew into bloody, painful infections.
“I’ve been working out three to four times a week and I’m so much stronger now,” he said. “I’ve put on quite a bit of muscle in the last seven weeks.”
The recovery has only fueled the determination of a 24-year-old snowboarder.
“I am focused and driven toward Cortina in 2026 in Italy for snowboarding because I was not given a fair chance this last Games and I definitely know that I had the potential to win both events with the way I was riding,” Elliott said. “If I wouldn’t have been injured, I think I definitely would have. I feel like I did get robbed a little bit because of my injury that I was dealing with in China, but it made me a stronger person because of it.
“Now it gives me more motivation for the next one.”
While daily life became a challenge for Elliott in China, few knew about it. Some of his teammates knew. But Elliott didn’t want his global competitors to know about the injury.
“I didn’t want anybody to count me out, especially with this being the biggest event for our sport,” Elliott said. “There’s a lot of times that people have a lot of nerves and pressure on them, so I didn’t want them to think I was compromised at all.”
But he was compromised. Team USA teammates Zach Miller and Michael Spivey noticed Elliott in their shared room in China and told him, he recalled: “Dude, oh my God, your leg is ridiculous.”
The problems began for Elliott in June 2021 when he was working at a nonprofit in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, which is where he lives with his daughter, Skylar. A blister formed on his leg. Eventually, it turned into an infection.
Elliott dropped Skylar off at school one day and soon felt ill at work.
“I felt so sick,” he said. “I was lightheaded. I thought I had COVID.”
He wound up in a hospital for days of infusions of antibiotics delivered through IV tubes. Last November, Elliott was not wearing his prosthetic leg and was often on crutches. When the world cup season started, he didn’t wear his leg until race day.
“I was in pain since last June,” he said. “I’ve been in pain a ton. I worked so hard to make it to this season, still on the national team, let alone to be working to qualify for my second Games.”
Ibuprofen pills were a part of his daily diet. He competed through the pain and won his last four competitions before heading to China for the Paralympics, Elliott said. After winning a world title, he took off his prosthetic leg and noticed that a cup of blood was in his liner.
Less than a month away from the start of the Paralympics, with a bone sticking out of his leg, Elliott consulted with U.S. medical doctors and decided he wanted to compete in Beijing.
“I looked at it as I’ve got to get surgery either way,” Elliott said. “If it’s not life threatening for me at this time and I can push through the pain a little bit, I want to experience this and just try and give it my all.”
Now that the surgery is done and the recovery process has been in place for two months, Elliott is quick to credit his snowboarding friends and a medical team that included Wade Smith, a Swedish doctor who performed the surgery, wound specialist Kate Campbell and Sarah Tey, who helped Elliott with his leg on the world cup tour in Europe.
“My teammates throughout this whole season have been so helpful for me,” he said. “They understood how real it was and how gnarly it was and how crazy it was. But they also understood how important it is to be there and to work so hard for it.”