COPPER MOUNTAIN – After shredding the competition at South Tahoe last weekend, Ouray native Heidi Duce is one giant leap closer to qualifying for the first-ever U.S. Women’s Paralympic Boardercross Team.
Duce, a feisty 22-year-old below-the-knee amputee, won a bronze medal at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing (IPCAS)-sanctioned race on Sunday, Jan. 27, which attracted 60 adaptive athletes from nine countries. It was the largest international adaptive snowboarding competition that the world has ever seen.
“I am ecstatic,” Duce said of her outstanding performance. “I did not expect that. It’s a really cool feeling.”
Competitors at South Tahoe traveled from as far away as Brazil, Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia and Australia for a chance to qualify to compete at the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
Duce has been training full time since December with the Copper Mountain-based Adaptive Action Sports Bordercross (AASB) team. She will continue shredding her way through various high-level competitions throughout the winter, culminating in the U.S. Nationals hosted by Copper Mountain in early April. Duce will need to be ranked as one of the top three females in the country in order to earn a berth in Sochi.
Things are looking good so far. For her winning ways last weekend, Duce is now ranked third overall (in the world) and second in the U.S. behind gold medalist Bibian Mentel of the Netherlands and silver medalist and AASB team captain Amy Purdy, a double below-the-knee amputee and the USA’s top female para-snowboarder.
At Tahoe, AASB was the team to beat. Teammate Evan Strong, a 2011 X-Games gold medallist, dominated the men’s lower-limb impairment category.
“It’s an amazing team,” Duce said. Remarkably, several of the top adaptive athletes finished with faster times than those in an able-bodied competition that was happening simultaneously. “Our top riders blew the able-bodied riders out of the water,” Duce said. “It was really cool.”
Duce and her teammates returned through a blizzard to their house at the base of Copper Mountain on Monday night, and have been spending the remainder of the week training hard for a second qualifying race that takes place there this Saturday.
It should should mean more good things for Duce; riding the home mountain gives her team a distinct advantage.
“We’ve been riding the course with really good coaches and breaking it down,” she said. “The Copper course is very technical, with a lot of difficult obstacles, and it’s icy and steep and fast. It’s cool that’s my home course, because training on that makes everything else seem easier.”
Duce has her form all dialed in. Now, AASB coaches Nicole Nathan and Jennifer O’Brian are working with her to “get out of her head and into her heart,” she said.
“It’s great advice. We’ve been working on breathing, and visualizing our course right out of the gate, counting our turns and visualizing where we need to go.”
Before Duce moved to Copper Mountain in December, her fans and friends in Ouray threw her a big fundraising event – a “bachelor auction” which raised several thousand dollars to help pay for her living expenses while she is training. She also recently won a $1,000 grant from the Flyin Ryan Hawks Foundation, a nonprofit endeavor founded in 2011 after Ryan Hawks, a well-known and widely respected extreme skier passed away from injuries sustained during a Freeskiing World Tour event.
Duce deeply appreciates all the financial support, which has allowed her to simply focus on training for a sport she loves. Duce, whose right leg was amputated below the knee when she was still a baby due to a birth defect, has been addicted to snowboarding since she was 11 years old. She learned how to ride at an adaptive sports 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.
“It’s been one hell of a ride,” she said. “It’s definitely crazy and fun, and I love it.”
Samantha Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet @iamsamwright