GO HEIDI JO! – Fans gathered at the Duce’s house on Thursday night to cheer Heidi-Jo on. (Photo by Samantha Wright)
U.S. Paralympian and Ouray native Heidi Jo Duce missed a podium finish but rode her way into history (and her fans’ hearts), coming in 5th place in the debut of women’s snowboard cross at the Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi today.
The competition got underway at 9:30 a.m. Sochi time on Friday, March 14, (translating to 11:30 p.m. Thursday night in Colorado), and wrapped up hours later with the undefeated Netherlands rider Bibian Mentel-Spee at the top of the podium, French rider Cecile Hernandez Ep Cervellon winning silver, and American Amy Purdy coming in with a bronze.
The U.S. Men’s team achieved an American clean sweep in a exciting race, with Evan Strong, Michael Shea and Keith Gabel winning gold, silver and bronze.
Duce, a single below-the-knee amputee, was ranked second in the world in the women’s lower-limb impairment class going into the games, tied with Purdy who is a double below-the-knee amputee. Both were favored for a silver medal at the Winter Paralympic Games.
But three rounds of brutal competition on an icy course at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center sent many contenders crashing spectacularly or (in Duce’s case) slipping out-of-bounds, while Purdy’s years of experience in the sport (she is a decade older than 24-year-old Duce) sent her to the podium with three tightly controlled, consistently executed rides.
Mentel-Spee, an international able-bodied snowboarder before her amputation, was the undisputed rock star of the day in the women’s competition, finishing a full eight seconds ahead of her closest competitors in each of three perfect rides. She was the only women contender to break the one-minute mark on the course, and did it twice, riding faster than many of the male competitors.
Duce, in contrast, is a newcomer to the sport, whose meteoric rise has taken the para-snowboarding world by storm, and transfixed her local fans in Ouray, many of whom gathered at her parents’ house on Thursday night and the wee hours of Friday morning to watch NBC Sports Network’s live streaming of the competition and cheer her on.
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