Jenny Ackers competes at the 2023 FIS Para Snowboarding World Championships. (Photo: Luc Percival)
One year ago, Jenny Ackers did not know that Para snowboarding existed for women with upper limb impairments like hers.
On March 9, Ackers was on a mountain in La Molina, Spain, at the FIS Para Snowboard World Championships competing for the U.S.
Ackers, 37, is part of a group of women vying to compete in the upper-limb impairment snowboarding events when they are added to the Paralympic Winter Games in 2026 in Milano Cortina.
Prior to 2026, organizers said there have not been enough women in that category to include it in the Paralympics, so athletes like Ackers did not know they could pursue it.
“It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ackers said.
Without athletes, there could be no classification, and without the classification, there could be no Paralympics for those athletes.
A snowboarder since her teens, Ackers grew up on Long Beach Island in New Jersey on a surfboard, not a snowboard. Her dad was the surfing coach at her high school, so Ackers grew up in the ocean.
“But it gets cold in the winter, and I didn’t like wearing a wetsuit and booties,” Ackers said.
She began using the money she earned from a summer job at a mini-golf course to fund day trips to ski resorts in the Poconos, which is where she learned to snowboard.
When she was 18, Ackers was hit from behind on the slopes by another snowboarder and landed on her neck. The impact tore the C5 and C6 nerves out of her spinal cord, leaving her right shoulder and biceps paralyzed. A nerve transfer surgery returned some mobility to the biceps, but her shoulder remains mostly paralyzed.
During her recovery, Ackers said her main priority was making sure she could still surf, bike and snowboard after her surgery.
The winter after her injury, Ackers was back on her snowboard. She moved to Colorado after her college graduation and began working as a snowboard instructor, which she did for a few seasons.
Around that time she heard an interview on NPR with Amy Purdy, a two-time Paralympian whose efforts were key to making adaptive snowboarding a Paralympic sport. The first Paralympic snowboarding competitions were held in 2014 in Sochi.
“I was like, oh, that’s really cool. Maybe I (can) qualify for that,” Ackers said.
However, she looked into it and saw that only a lower-limb impairment classification existed for snowboardcross and banked slalom, the two snowboarding events included in the Paralympics.
Not enough women competed in the existing world cups and world championships in the leadup to the Beijing Games for the International Paralympic Committee to include a UL classification there.
Fellow American Kiana Clay started a petition to introduce events for the upper-limb impairment class in Beijing. While it did not succeed there, snowboardcross and banked slalom for female athletes with upper-limb impairments were added to the Paralympic roster for 2026 at an IPC meeting in December 2020.
Making it to La Molina was a huge accomplishment for Ackers and her fellow competitors.
“To be able to come, to show that there are enough of us out there ready and willing to compete (was important),” she said.
Ackers was one of seven athletes from four countries who competed in banked slalom. She added that there are more women who could compete, but due to injuries they were not all able to be in Spain.
Ackers said she was hit by anxiety in Spain, affecting her performance.
“World champs was only my second competition ever, so I had a lot of nerves,” Ackers said. “A lot of it was really new to me.”
Her competitors helped make her more comfortable while she was there, which helped make the competitions a more enjoyable experience.
“All of the women here really lifted me up,” she said, adding with laughter that one Polish snowboarder literally lifted her up after a fall during training and helped her back up the mountain. “I have made so many friends.”
Now back from Spain with her husband and two children, ages 4 and almost 6, she may compete at nationals, which will take place April 4-5 at Copper Mountain in Colorado. After that, she hopes to make it to as many competitions and training camps as she can, though she acknowledges that her family responsibilities make that a real challenge.
“I have an amazing supportive husband who does all he can,” she said, but there’s only so much he can do.
In the meantime her kids know that she is trying to win a gold medal, and they welcome her home from the mountain every day by asking her if she has won it yet.
“Not yet,” she laughs.