OURAY – It’s hard to keep a secret in this town – especially about Ouray’s first-ever Paralympic athlete. The town has been buzzing with Heidi Jo Duce’s not-so-sub rosa news for a couple of weeks. But now it’s official. “I’m going to Sochi! I feel like I could fly!” says Duce.
The feisty 23-year-old below-the-knee amputee and Ouray native daughter qualified for the team at the World Cup event in Copper Mountain in mid-January, with second and third place podium finishes, and sealed the deal in two days of back-to-back World Cup competition in Canada last week, where she also took second and third place, consecutively.
Duce brings an aggressive style of riding with unmatched dedication to training and continued development as a well-rounded athlete with a passion for whitewater rafting. She has chased her Paralympic dream since the fall of 2012, training first with the Copper Mountain-based Adaptive Action Sports Boardercross team and then moving to Winter Park to train with the National Sports Center for the Disabled, the largest adaptive sports training program in the country.
Duce shredded her way through various high-level competitions last winter, taking the gold at the U.S. Paralympics Snowboard National Championships in Copper Mountain last March – a remarkable feat considering that she had been riding competitively for just a year and a half.
In October, while training in Austria, she came perilously close to losing it all, miss-timing a move that sent her cartwheeling through the air and landing smack on her shoulder, resulting in a second-degree separation of her AC joint.
But in rehab, Duce started working with “the most amazing physical therapist in the entire world,” who was also a pilates instructor. “She rocked it,” Duce said. “We focused on building the fine muscles I don’t usually use when I go to gym.” Thanks to her PT regimen, Duce said, “I have also been able to fix crazy core imbalances from being an amputee my entire life.”
Duce’s went on to second- and third-place podium finishes amidst fierce competition at recent World Cup events in Copper Mountain and Canada.
Now, it’s back to training full-time for the Paralympics. “I fly to Spain Feb. 7 where I have two more World Cups in La Molina,” she said. “Then there’s a training camp in Aspen the last week of February, then I come home for a day, then I fly to Russia for three weeks.
“Everything goes by so fast,” she said. “For me, it’s been really important to figure out how to balance snowboarding and training with my personal life, my boyfriend and my family. It has been good for me, figuring out time management. Everybody in my life is so supportive.”
That includes her legions of fans in Ouray, who have been supporting her emotionally as well as financially, dropping off checks at the official Heidi Duce Fan Club headquarters (the Timber Ridge Service Station, which her dad Steve co-owns) to help her achieve her dream.
Duce deeply appreciates all the financial support, which has allowed her to focus on training for a sport she loves. Duce, whose right leg was amputated below the knee as a baby, due to a birth defect called fibular hemimelia, has been addicted to snowboarding since she age 11, at an adaptive sports camp called the “Un-limb-ited Amputee Camp” in Utah sponsored by the Shriners, which she attended for six years in a row.
Back then, she never dreamed she’d someday be competing at such an elite level.
“I am the only A team rider who is completely unsponsored,” Duce said. “I’m proud to say I don’t ride for a corporate sponsor; I ride for the community that supports me. I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it to show the world what amputees can do. And I’m in it for the love of the sport.”
In recent weeks, Duce has also been enjoying some love from the national media. She is currently featured on a United Airlines inflight commercial, and made a recent appearance on the Today Show.
But as her big day draws near, Duce said, she works to block out the hype and focus like a laser on just one thing: winning at Sochi. “I think about it every single day,” she said. “It’s pretty much the only thing I think about. Everything I am doing is in hopes of doing well at Sochi.”
The Paralympic Winter Games start March 7; Duce races on March 14. All events will be broadcast on NBC and the NBC Sports Network.
“This is the first time in the history of the Paralympics that it will be televised with full coverage,” Duce said. “It’s a pretty big deal. And snowboarding is making its Paralympic debut. It’s a two-for-one!”
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