A little over a year ago, Heidi Jo Duce was doing what she’d done just about every day for the past several months of her life. She was working the register at a kayak supply shop in the town of Buena Vista, Colorado.
“I was minding my business, doing whatever I’d usually do on a weekday afternoon, I guess, when one of the directors of Adaptive Action Sports walked into the store," Duce recalls. "He asked for Heidi and I looked around for a second. I was like, ‘Me?’ And then I said, ‘Umm … I’m right here.’”
Duce’s life changed forever that afternoon in the kayak shop. The director had just hitchhiked for a ride on the freeway and spent the past 30 minutes hearing about the “amputee extreme sports girl” who worked at the kayak supply store a few miles from where the car’s driver lived.
Told that he “had to at least meet the girl,” the director was dropped off at the front door of the kayak shop on a whim. After a brief introduction, he asked Duce if she’d ever considered snowboarding in the Paralympics. “It changed everything for me,” says Duce, a self-described “hippie” and a lifetime winter sports enthusiast. “We had a quick conversation and from that point on, I decided that I would give everything to snowboarding.”
Duce, who has a condition known as fibular hemimelia, was born without most of the bones in her right ankle and foot. At 18 months, she had what remained of her right leg amputated below the knee, and an additional four inches were amputated when she was 19. Now 22 and wearing a grey Team USA sweatshirt, just a few months after the stranger walked into her 9-to-5 gig at the kayak shop, she’s 100 days away from a potential trip to Sochi for the 2014 Paralympics.
As Duce rather casually tells me her incredible made-for-Disney movie Olympic story in the middle of Manhattan’s Times Square on Tuesday afternoon, I ask her if she’s ever taken a moment to let it all sink in; some time to absorb it all.
“There’s no time to really reflect, you know? It’s been a whirlwind and I’m just trying to enjoy every single second of it. Every single second,” she reiterates with a smile as her nose ring shines in the late October sun.
“I’ve never been to New York City before,” Duce says as she looks up at a giant billboard of LeBron James hanging over both of us. “I’m from a small town in Colorado of 600 people. Everyone pretty much knows everyone. And now I’m being interviewed in the middle of Times Square? I mean, it’s pretty surreal. But you can’t get caught up in it. You just have to keep on going.”
It’s a sentiment you’ll hear a lot from Olympians. Just keep on going.
Duce’s journey from being the “amputee extreme sports girl” working in the kayak shop to Team USA, as captivating and inspiring and unlikely as one you’ll ever hear, is one of hundreds that will have its final chapters written in Sochi come February.
Exactly 100 days out from the official start of the 2014 Winter Games, several of Team USA’s top athletes gathered in New York City to help generate some buzz around the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. Each one of them has his or her personal story of adversity and triumph.
There’s Jazmine Fenlator, a Team USA bobsled pilot, whose family in New Jersey lost everything in Hurricane Irene two years ago. There’s JR Celski, the champion speedskater, who’s finally back to form after suffering a severe ankle fracture in 2011. There’s Julie Chu, the face of Team USA’s women’s ice hockey team, who’s been to three different Olympic Games — 2002 in Salt Lake City, 2006 in Turin and 2010 in Vancouver — and has yet to win a gold medal. Their paths are all different and their resumes are all unique, but their goals are essentially the same. They want to hear the Star Spangled Banner, on a podium, with a gold medal draped around their neck.
“I woke up this morning, realized it was the 100-day mark, and got really excited,” says freestyle skier and four-time Winter X Games medalist Tom Wallisch. “Sochi is the dream. It’s been the dream for so long. To think that it’s almost here serves as just a little extra boost of motivation.”
Speedskater Travis Jayner has more than a dream to fulfill in Sochi. He has unfinished business to take care of. A bronze medal winner in Vancouver back in 2010, he’s spent the last three and a half years thinking, dreaming and breathing gold. As part of the Hilton HHonors program, Jayner lives and works fulltime in Park City, Utah. His job? When he’s not thinking, dreaming and breathing that gold medal, he’s parking Fords, Chevrolets and Mercedes Benzes as a valet at the Waldorf-Astoria. “It’s an amazing program and because of it, I can pursue my dream,” he explains.
Is the amazing valet speedskater ever tempted to take an expensive car for a joyride? “No, I’m actually more intimidated by the luxury cars than anything. There will be no ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ moments from me. I’m too scared I’ll scratch one of the cars.”
Jayner, Fenlator, Chu, Celski, and Duce all go relatively unnoticed as they walk through Times Square. Tourists point at them in their Team USA outfits and snap photos, but they’re still more or less faces in the crowd. A hundred days out from Sochi, they’re still not household names. They can slip in and out of any New York City restaurant and not be hassled.
There’s a Gavin DeGraw concert scheduled later in the evening and a few of the athletes will attend. Duce, new to New York, wants to see “Wicked” on Broadway, but knows it’s unlikely because of her busy schedule. They’re all on to the next assignment, the next race, or the next press event with a greater goal in their collective sights.
“After Vancouver,” Jayner says, “I got noticed a few times on the street and thought, ‘Well, that’s pretty cool.’ But that’s not what it’s about. It’s about finishing the job that I’ve started. It’s really all about that gold medal. Unfinished business.”
Whether it’s parking cars at a hotel, working in a kayak shop in Colorado, or any one of the hundreds of other compelling stories that write the scripts behind the athletes competing in Sochi come February, the end goal seems to be the same for all of Team USA.
They’re all going for that gold. One hundred days from now, they’ll all look to complete the journey.