About 15 months after entering her first competition, Brittani Coury will take the next step in her rapid rise in snowboarding at the 2018 Paralympic Games next week.
Coury will compete in snowboard-cross and banked slalom at the Games, which will be held Friday through March 18 in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“The excitement is at an all-time high,” Coury said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “The emotions going through my mind right now, I’m really excited to go over and represent my country. There’s not many opportunities for an individual to represent where they’re from, where they live, but to do it for your whole country, just that in itself is amazing to think about.”
Coury participates in the lower-limb 2 classification, which is designated for athletes with an impairment in one or two legs. A typical example would be an amputation below the knee, which is what happened to Coury.
The 31-year-old Coury, who lives and trains in Durango, reached the highest level of competition for her sport at a rapid pace, but the journey to competitive snowboarding was anything but smooth and speedy.
Originally from Aztec, Coury grew up snowboarding. It gave her freedom to carve down the mountain, picking up more speed as she pushed her limits. But like everyone who tries the sport, she fell.
At the age of 17, she broke her right ankle in a crash. The injury never fully healed.
When she was 21, Coury had her first ankle surgery to repair bone spurs caused by the accident. The surgery wasn’t successful in eliminating the pain, and her doctor suggested an ankle fusion – a procedure used to alleviate pain in the ankle by fusing the bones together. It’s commonly used on older patients to relieve arthritis pain, not on 21-year-olds with an active lifestyle.
“I said no way. Not at 21,” Coury said.
She saw a specialist in Denver who agreed ankle fusion was a last resort. But eight surgeries later, her ankle was still a mess.
Relegated to using crutches to get around for years while she recovered from surgery after surgery, Coury knew her options were limited. She could have the fusion procedure, an idea she loathed because it would mean there was no future for the active lifestyle she adored, or eliminate the ankle injuries completely with an amputation.
She extensively researched both options, and in her research, she stumbled across a video on YouTube. It was a clip of a downhill mountain biker who had a leg amputated, and seeing the rider charge down the mountain and navigate the terrain inspired Coury.
“At that point in my life, I just wanted to be active – I had been on crutches for almost six years straight,” she said. “I knew if I was able to amputate my leg, there was a possibility of me being active. Being on crutches, I was so disabled for so long I was ready to get my life back, and if that meant amputating my foot, for me that was a no-brainer.”
For Coury, an active lifestyle was like breathing. Being limited in what she could do physically was as if a weight was pushing on her chest, slowly suffocating her while her lungs ached to be filled with the clean, fresh air of the mountains.
So in June 2011, Coury had her lower right leg amputated, about midway between her knee and ankle. By August, she was walking.
But it would still be years before she strapped on a snowboard and rode down a mountain.
When the time finally came to get back on the slopes, Coury started slow. She went snowboarding with her sister, her two nieces and her nephew, and enjoyed the time spent with her family. But before long, she began to increasingly push herself.
“I’m the type of person who always pushes the limits. So even at my ability level, I wanted to see how fast I could go or if I could still spin a 180,” Coury said. “I was still pushing those limits and I fell back in love with it – just being on snow.”
Coury entered a Dew Tour event in Breckenridge and competed in the banked slalom race on Dec. 9, 2016. She had been back on a snowboard for 13 days before the race.
“I did OK. I didn’t finish last, so that was good,” she said.
Doing “OK” was good enough. She received support from family, friends and athletes and coaches on the snowboarding circuit, and found a spot with Team USA in mid-2017.
“She’s been at every team activity we’ve had since then,” said Team USA’s snowboard coach Graham Watanabe, who competed in snowboard-cross at the 2006 and 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “First and foremost, she is always such a pleasure to have around and brings a positive energy to the whole team, and I’ve really enjoyed working with her. She’s really put in a lot hard work and she knows nothing is given.”
When she earned her spot on the U.S. team, Coury left her job as a clinical supervisor at Mercy Regional Medical Center so she could go all-in on snowboarding and to travel the globe with the team.
In the months she spent with the U.S. team, Coury competed in New Zealand, across Europe and in Canada to help prepare for South Korea.
Watanabe said that in the short time he has worked with Coury, he has seen improvement in her riding, which is a testament to her natural ability and the work she has put in to reach a high level. He has high hopes for her in South Korea.
“I have no expectations – I have a hard time with that word. But I certainly have high hopes,” Watanabe said. “For her, she’s proven she’s capable of podiums, and I think that’s something she wants for herself. All I want to do is go there and pick out the couple of key points we’ve worked on during the season and see her execute those things. I believe that she has a high likelihood of walking away with a really solid showing.”
Coury’s races in Pyeongchang will air live on the NBC Sports Network. In Durango, snowboard-cross will air at 9:30 p.m. March 11, and banked slalom will air at 11 p.m. March 15.
“I’m nervous and excited. I think those are two really good emotions to describe how I’m feeling,” Coury said. “... I’ve already won on this journey. No matter where I finish, I just want to be able to show my nieces and nephew that you can achieve your dream no matter how old you are or how far-fetched it may seem. I think I have a little less anxiety going in than most people. I’m more excited.”