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Q&A with para snowboarder Brenna Huckaby

Brenna Huckaby
Mitchell Haaseth/NBC Sports

Q&A with para snowboarder Brenna Huckaby

The three-time world champion discusses her experience with cancer and becoming a mother

At the most recent world championships in 2017, Brenna Huckaby claimed a pair of gold medals, winning competitions in both snowboard cross and banked slalom. She now holds three world titles, so it's no surprise that she tells us she's aiming high for the upcoming 2018 Paralympics in PyeongChang.

What was the biggest obstacle you've overcome in your life?
I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 14 with a small chance of survival. When I began chemotherapy, everything was okay, but then my body started taking a turn. My tumor ate the chemotherapy like food and the mass grew from a golf ball to a softball. I was told there was no other choice but amputation if I wanted to live. I cut my leg off and began more chemo, different drugs, and my body again didn't respond. I am now at risk for leukemia. We stopped chemo way before my treatment was over, so every day is a worry that it will come back.

How influential were your parents in your athletic career?
My parents are the whole reason I am able to snowboard. My whole life, I was very active. I would climb trees with my brothers, go tubing on Caney Lake, and I was a very competitive gymnast. When I was 14, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, which left me with an above-the-knee amputation. My parents and I tried to find a replacement sport, however nothing was as amazing as the feeling of gymnastics.

When I was 15, I was invited to the National Ability Center on a rehabilitation ski trip where I learned to snowboard. My mom was my plus-one, so she was there to see the light back in my eye. She knew this was something I was meant to do. When we got back to Louisiana, she told my dad of the beauty she witnessed. He wanted to see it himself, so he took me back to Utah where we stayed with my first snowboard instructor in her basement apartment. The first day on the hill, my dad too witnessed the light back in my eye. They knew something great was going to happen.

My parents went home and decided to move me to Utah. We didn’t have much money, so logistics took some time and my mom made the sacrifice to move to Utah and find an apartment and job so the both of us could live. I was still in high school, so my contribution wasn’t great. My parents and brothers sacrificed their relationship, time, and money for me to be in Utah to reach this dream. When I turned 18, I joined the U.S. snowboard team and was able to work part-time to support myself and dream. My parents and brothers were all reunited while I live in Utah to continue what they started.

What was the breakthrough moment in your career?
In 2015 when I won my first world championships. I finally beat my biggest competitor. I knew at that moment I had the potential to go far.

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Did anyone ever try to tell you that you wouldn’t be able to succeed in your sport?
Not in snowboarding. I mean, I am always told AK [above-the-knee amputee] snowboarders will never be as good as BKs [below-the-knee amputees] or able-bodies, but I constantly prove that wrong. I just work extra hard on the skills and movements people tell me are "impossible." It takes me a lot longer but I get it, and when I do achieve it, it's sometimes better than an able-body. The key is to ignore the haters and focus on you and your skills. Be more than what's out there. Create the new.

What’s something about para snowboarding that people don't normally see?
Sometimes we are all scared when we show up to a course. It's always a mental battle to not be so nervous to ride the course! But once someone hits it, the fear is softer.

Who's your biggest rival, and is it a friendly or contentious rivalry?
Cecile Hernandez from France is my biggest rival. It's friendly when I win, [just kidding]. We have our moments but all in all, we love the sport and we both want to push it as far as we can, so it's all good competition.

Biggest fear when competing?
Peeing my pants. I have done it. You get so nervous you have to pee all the time and it's only a matter of time until it happens!! There aren't any bathrooms around and if you're very lucky there are trees, but only sometimes.

Tell us about your daughter.
I have a daughter named Lilah Marie Clegg. Her birthday is May 21, 2016.

It’s a crazy story. I didn’t know I was pregnant until I was five months along. I had competed in two World Cups and traveled through Europe pregnant. I was in such good shape and training so hard I was not showing in the slightest. I actually went to the doctor on an unrelated matter, but I left with the news of pregnancy. That’s not the only insane part. I was told by top doctors I was basically infertile due to the chemotherapy drug Ifosfamide. The news of my miracle was the best day of my life — no medal could ever compare.

Training has been tough. I no longer have the freedom to just leave the house to go to the gym (or anywhere for that matter). Everything I do is very planned out. When do we have a babysitter? Will she be in the middle of a nap? Has she eaten yet? Are the sitters free? When does Tristan (her father) get home? Everything revolves around her. When I am traveling, I’m always thinking about being home with her. What’s she doing, wearing, eating? How is she sleeping? Does she miss me like I miss her? This journey is hard, but being separate from her is by far the hardest. If I could afford it, I would take her to every event.

Lilah has changed the intensity of my goals. The goals didn’t change, just how bad I want them did. If I am leaving my precious baby girl, I better put in work. I will train my hardest, compete my hardest, and I will win. I am not leaving her for less than being the best in the world. The titles make it all worth it. I want her to be proud of me when she’s older and not resent me leaving her.

What athlete, in any sport, has been your greatest source of inspiration?
For a while it's been Nastia Liukin. (Hey girl, I told you in 2012 you would see me at the Games.) She's not the shortest gymnast, so she's had to overcome that and she did and rocked it. She's so graceful and seems like an overall nice competitor.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Live for the day and dream about the future. Basically you can only control what you do today. If you put in the work, the future will work out.

Are you a fan of any other sports or teams?
[NEW ORLEANS] SAINTS. I am from Louisiana, so who isn't a fan?! And Drew Brees all the way, baby! He's got such a big heart on and off the field.

Favorite perk of being an elite athlete?
The free uniforms and gear. It always looks sooooo fresh.

Brenna Huckaby

The happy family. Credit: Justin Lubin/NBC Sports

Do you have a lucky charm or an item that you can’t train or compete without?
I have to wear my diamond cross necklace my mom and dad bought me when I was 12. I have never taken it off, and I refuse [to].

Do you have any nicknames?
"Struggle Bus," because I am always forgetting or breaking something. And "Throttle Baby," because I like to go really fast, and if someone is coming up behind me, I go faster — like a throttle.

Any tattoos?
I have my medical record number on my chest above my port scar. It signifies I am no longer a number, I am a person who beat cancer.

What are your personal care indulgences?
Coloring my hair! I think it's so fun!

Do you have a personal motto?
Float like a butterfly, sting like a Huckaby. Live for the day and dream about the future.

What's your goal for PyeongChang 2018?
I want double golds. I know I can get them. I have proven [to] myself time and time I have what it takes to podium in the top tier. Now I just need to make it happen.

Learn about your favorite Paralympic athletes

Para Alpine skiing:

Andrew Kurka | Danelle Umstead | Thomas Walsh

Para snowboarding:

Brenna Huckaby | Amy Purdy | Mike Schultz | Evan Strong

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