This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2017, on newsstands on July 7. Subscribe today!
On June 23, 2012, the CH-53D helicopter carrying U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Kirstie Ennis crashed in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Ennis, an aerial door gunner, suffered traumatic injuries to her brain, spine and face, as well as severe damage to her shoulders and her left leg. After three years and more than three dozen surgeries, doctors amputated her leg below the knee in November 2015. A month later, due to an infection in her residual limb, doctors performed a second amputation to remove her left knee.
An athlete throughout her life, Ennis embraced sports in her recovery. She competed in rowing, swimming and outdoor cycling at the 2016 Invictus Games, and in March, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, becoming the first female above-the-knee amputee to summit the mountain. Her eventual goal? Standing at the top of each of the Seven Summits.
Ennis is also training to make the 2018 U.S. Paralympic snowboard team and compete at the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang next March.
ESPN senior writer Alyssa Roenigk somehow persuaded Ennis to sit still long enough to talk to us about being the first veteran to pose for the Body Issue, her confidence and the inspiration she feels compelled to be. This is her story, in her words.
People think I have this crazy robotic, hydraulic leg -- that I must walk faster and this must be better than my old human leg. I laugh about that. I stumble over my feet all the time! One of the things I learned [after the amputation] is that it's what's behind your rib cage and the 6 inches between your ears that matters. If you have your head and your heart in the right place and go into things laughing and smiling, it's going to be smooth sailing.
When I was lying in a hospital bed and my neck was broken, my leg was all messed up, my arms were mangled, my whole face had to be reconstructed, I was in shambles and I had huge self-esteem issues. My first thoughts were, Am I going to be able to walk again? Wear a dress again? How will people look at me? Who's going to find me attractive? I went through a phase of being very uncomfortable with my body.
Then I got back into athletics -- snowboarding, mountaineering, running, triathlons -- and that did so much for my confidence. Things I wasn't doing with two legs I was doing with one leg. In the military and in sports, you put your body through hell. You push the limits and you break any expectation you had of yourself. They break you down and reshape you. I don't think someone who's not an athlete, active duty or a veteran would ever understand. It's not just a physical process; it's mental and emotional. Whether you're on a team playing a sport or fighting alongside your brothers and sisters in arms, you know damn well the person to your left and to your right has your back no matter what.
Snowboarding came into my life pretty quickly [after my accident in 2012]. I was lying in a hospital room, and a rep from this organization called Disabled Sports USA came in and said, "Are you able to leave? Would you like to learn a winter sport?" I would sneak away from the hospital and go to Big Bear [ski resort in California] on Thursdays, and I did that through the rest of the season. I trained and competed; the following season, I ended up winning the 2015 USASA National Championship and being fifth in the world.
Then, when I lost my knee, my first thought was, "I'm not going to be able to snowboard, I'm not going to be able to run or swim." I thought, "It's going to be impossible."
I will never complain about being an amputee -- I'm alive, happy, healthy -- but I would do damn near anything to have my left knee back. A below-the-knee amputation is night and day from above-the-knee. When I went in to the hospital and they said you're going to be above-the-knee now, I lost it. I snapped. I screamed. I made a fool of myself in the hospital. I thought this dream of being a gold medalist in Pyeongchang [at the Winter Olympics in 2018] was gone. Not only was my dream of being a Marine taken away, but now my dream of being an athlete was taken away. I was destroyed.
As a below-the-knee amputee, you don't have to relearn much. As an above-the-knee amputee, you're a toddler. I was trying to find my niche in sports. Everything always came naturally to me growing up, and I was afraid I lost that. I got super hungry and competitive to show the world I could be the best at something. I found myself in the mountains because that's where it's hard. In the mountains, you have to be self-reliant. There's no coach to say, "This is how you're going to get out of this." You need to figure it out yourself. [In addition to snowboarding], I want to master mountaineering, and I want to bring other adaptive mountaineers to the highest peaks in the world.
I recently started training for Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia. It's only a 16,000-foot mountain, the highest point in Oceania, but it's a sheer rock face. You have to wear thick hazmat gloves to climb this thing. It takes sheer strength and it's a technical climb. It sees, like, 33 summit attempts a year. It's brutal. There's been one other above-the-knee amputee, a guy, who attempted it, and he got pulled off in the first 500 feet of the mountain. That's my mountain.
When we were on the 1,000-mile walk across Britain [for a Walking With the Wounded charity event in 2015], Prince Harry told me his knee hurt, and I looked over and was like, "That's f---ing cute. Really?" I used to roll my eyes and be like, "You have no idea." But now I look at people and I'm happy they're feeling what they're feeling because it's making them tougher. I like seeing people grow, and in order to have growth, you have to be uncomfortable.
There are still days when I look in the mirror and I'm like, "Whoa." When I dream, I have two legs. I'm running.
The first time I went to a pool in a public setting and took my leg off was heartbreaking. I'm trying not to cry thinking about it now. A residual limb doesn't look normal. You have to hop over to the pool. There was a reality check that this is not normal and people are looking at you.
It's been a long, hard road. From June 2012 to the present day, it's been an uphill battle, but I'm confident and comfortable in the skin I'm in now. I made it home alive. There are a lot of men and women who didn't. I am living, breathing, walking, all to honor them. I'm not doing this for me anymore. I'm doing it for however many sets of eyes are watching me scale mountains or compete. There is no more Kirstie. I'm doing this for any person who can find inspiration in what I'm doing.
For more Body interviews: AJ Andrews | Javier Baez | Julian Edelman | Ezekiel Elliott | Kirstie Ennis | Julie and Zach Ertz | Malakai Fekitoa | Gus Kenworthy | Nneka Ogwumike | Isaiah Thomas | Joe Thornton and Brent Burns | US Women's National Hockey Team | Ashley Wagner | Michelle Waterson | Novlene Williams-Mills | Caroline Wozniacki