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Amputee snowboarder aiming for 2022 Paralympics

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Dennae Russell

Dennae Russell uses a two-piece prosthetic specially designed for action sports like snowboarding. Russell is spending four weeks in Europe training and racing in an effort to qualify for the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing. 

Losing a leg restored Dennae Russell’s ability to pursue her passion for athletics. On Friday, Russell headed to Europe where she’ll attempt to qualify for the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games in Beijing. 

Russell, of Sturgis, is part of a team of athletes from the United States who will train and compete in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland over the next four weeks. The team members will enter Nor-Am races, which are organized by the International Ski Federation, and World Cup races. Russell competes in banked slalom and boardercross snowboarding events.

Russell, 29, needs to compete in enough qualifying races to earn points that will gain her a spot in the Paralympic games. If she’s not able to qualify, the points she earns from races will count toward helping her qualify for the 2026 Paralympic games.

“I’m a competitive person, so it’s fun to have that outlet. It’s the only time I really get to be around amputees. Around here, I don’t have that network of people. It’s nice to be around other people who understand the struggles but also work around that and are thriving,” Russell said. “It’s refreshing to be around other people who are as passionate as me and are willing to go above and beyond to achieve their goals and dreams.”

Traveling the world for a chance at the Paralympics was something Russell never imagined when she was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma in 2013. She was 21 and a lifelong athlete. The cancer is considered extremely rare, according to the Mayo Clinic, and occurs in bones and soft tissues.

Russell went through more than a year of chemotherapy and limb salvage surgery.

“They took the fibula out of my healthy leg and put it where the cancerous tibia was and bolted it all together,” Russell said.

The salvaged limb lasted about three years, but Russell had to use a cane or crutches and she wasn’t able to play sports or do any of the things she really loved.

“The bones started to deteriorate so (doctors) gave me options to keep my leg, but I would have to keep having surgeries and (couldn’t do) high-impact sports,” she said. “There was zero hope of the limb salvage healing. It made the decision (to amputate) easier. My number one question was ‘Can I snowboard again?’”

She was inspired by videos she watched of adaptive athletes snowboarding. Russell’s leg was amputated above the knee in 2016. When the incision healed, she was fitted for a socket that hooks to a prosthetic. Five days after getting the socket, Russell walked in a 5K.

After trial and error with various prosthetics, Russell now uses a microprocessor knee for everyday walking and activities. A snowboarding leg designed for action sports gave Russell the ability to snowboard again.

“That’s when things shifted and I was able to really excel,” she said.

The prosthetic is made by BioDapt, a company that designs, manufactures and distributes high-performance lower limb prosthetic components. It was created by a professional snowmobile racer who is now an adaptive athlete after losing a leg to a racing injury. The two-piece Moto Knee and Versa Foot prosthetic is equipped with mountain bike shocks.

“It absorbs the shock when I’m jumping. When I land, it helps it be a smoother landing and takes a lot of pressure off from the end of the amputated side and hip. It makes it a lot more natural,” Russell said.

Russell’s initial goal was to snowboard the best she could. An unexpected opportunity led her to begin competing as an adaptive athlete. In 2018, while visiting a friend in Breckenridge, Colo., Russell was snowboarding and caught the attention of some coaches. She was invited to participate in a race camp and then was asked to be part of the Dew Tour, a traveling extreme sports circuit, less than a week later.

“The Dew Tour is an invitation-only event for high-level competition snowboarders and skiers,” said Russell.

“That was my first event with zero training and it was televised,” she laughed. “I was terrified. That went well, and that’s where I met my coach I still train with today.”

Her coach, Lane Clegg, trains athletes from throughout the United States. Clegg invited Russell to go to Canada to race in an international race circuit for adaptive athletes.

“It was a whirlwind. All of this happened within a two-week span,” Russell said.

In 2018, Russell also established a Black Hills chapter of Camp Quality, a summer camp for children who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Since then, in between working to pay the costs of training and travel, Russell periodically travels to Utah and California for intensive training.

“The cool thing with Lane is he coaches adaptive athletes and able-bodied athletes, so we have to work up to their level. We have to do everything they do,” she said. “I’m pushed maybe a little bit farther than just adaptive athletes … and that is a big reason why I stayed with him for coaching.”

Competitive sports remain her biggest passion. She’s hoping to find a job that allows her to work remotely and spend all winter training. Training and competing will be the primary focus of this trip to Europe, although Russell said she and the other athletes might fit in some sightseeing. After she returns from Europe, Russell hopes to compete in more Nor-Am and World Cup races in Canada in early 2022.

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