On the afternoon of March 11, University of Arkansas track athlete and double amputee Hunter Woodhall landed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to prepare for the NCAA indoor national championship. Heading into the weekend meet, Woodhall and his 4x400-meter relay teammates were favorites for a top finish. After practice the next day, the NCAA canceled the meet due to the coronavirus outbreak. Soon thereafter, all collegiate athletic seasons abruptly ended.
Two weeks later, on March 24, the 21-year-old learned that the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, where he had hoped to compete, had been postponed until 2021. "I was extremely happy with the decision because I'll take postponement over cancellation any day of the week," said Woodhall, who's staying with his girlfriend in Austin, Texas. "And it's the best choice for the safety of everyone -- the athletes and viewers and everyone involved."
Still, the decision left Woodhall, like so many others, with time to assess where he has gotten -- and how far he still wants to run.
A 2016 Paralympic medalist in the 200 and 400 meters, Woodhall is the first double amputee to earn a Division I track and field scholarship. He was born with fibular hemimelia, a rare condition in which some or all of the lower leg bones are missing. When his parents were told he would likely never walk, they decided to have Woodhall's legs amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. But that didn't stop him from participating in sports. Soccer, T-ball, wrestling, skiing -- anything his two older brothers competed in, Woodhall wanted to as well. Running ultimately won out.
Now the Utah native has gone, in a matter of days, from a potential national champion and repeat Paralympic medalist to a sprinter without a competition on the calendar.
Woodhall -- 6-foot-3 with light blond hair and a wide smile -- says he views the changes as temporary setbacks. The rising senior and three-time first-team All-American is embracing a rare break in full-time training -- but still keeping his fans (including close to 2 million followers on TikTok) entertained on social media.
As he continues to prove, determination has defined Hunter Woodhall's life. His Instagram tagline echoes that: "They said I'd never walk, so I learned to run instead." Here's his story in his words.
FOR THE LONGEST time, I was treated by everyone as -- I don't want to say a charity case, but the general connotation of "The kid with the disability is here, and we're content with him just showing up."
My dad would say, "You're different, and people are going to treat you as such. It will make you a better person, but you might have to work a little harder to get to where you want to be." It was up to me to show people I can do more, that my athletic ability extends past my physical disability.
Running was my way to do that. When I first started at 8 years old, I ran fun runs and 5Ks on normal prosthetics -- and it was extremely difficult, like running in a medical boot. I was always far in the back. I got my blades in seventh grade, right around 2012, when Oscar Pistorius ran in the London Olympics. At the time, that was so far out of the idea of what I could become or achieve. I'd finish last in races, and people would still be clapping and cheering. I realized everyone was just happy I was there. In no other case do people cheer for the loser.
I was appalled and uncomfortable, but quitting was never an option. If I give up now, then they win. Still, there were many times where I was just done. My dad -- who's very blunt -- would tell me to shut up and get back to work. I thought, "What can I do to get people to stop seeing me as a kid with no legs and instead see me as an athlete?" I figured it out in junior high when I started running track and found new friends: If I want to be respected as an athlete, I need to become the athlete I want to be.
SOON I STARTED to become that athlete. Once a week, my parents drove me an hour and a half away to train with a private coach, DaSheek Akwenye, a former Utah State University runner, so I could get more comfortable in my legs. He hadn't worked with a runner with blades, but he was a former 400m runner, so he knew what he was doing. I also gave up my summers to go to San Diego by myself and train with Joaquim Cruz, an Olympic gold medalist in the 800m, at the Olympic Training Center. I was 15 years old. I didn't have a car, so I'd stay on campus. I give my parents more credit than anyone for my being where I am today. They made so many sacrifices and put me in the best position to succeed.
I ran my first Paralympics world championships in 2015 when I was 16 -- and then I went to the Rio Paralympics the next year. I got silver in the 200m and bronze in the 400m in those events at each competition. Oddly enough, I was much more comfortable in an able-bodied setting because I had been running there since seventh grade. Also, I hadn't been making high school state able-bodied championships yet, but I was at a world Paralympic championship -- so the level of competition, on scale, was a lot different.
The better I raced in able-bodied events, the more people asked questions. My senior year of high school, I had broken the state record and won a state championship individually. It was a really cool moment, something I cherished. Then someone in the stands stood up in front of everybody, three seats away from my family, and yelled, "You shouldn't be here, you're a cheater." It sucks that somebody else's ill wishes or negativity can tear down that moment.
That same person had put in an appeal days earlier to the Utah state commission, saying I shouldn't be allowed to run with able-bodied runners; instead, I should run in my own category by myself -- with no one else in the state. My coach had pulled me aside on the day of the state championships and said, "Somebody put in an appeal, and we can't let you run until we get this straightened out." The next morning, he said, "Every other coach in the state has vouched for you, and this man was roasted in the meeting." Just to see that was super cool, even from the rival schools.
The next step for me was college. Running for a D-I school was always an idea -- even though a D-I coach told me I wasn't fast enough and should be looking at D-II or D-III schools. I love to prove people wrong -- but the start of my recruiting process was difficult. My high school coach and I sent probably 100 emails and letters to Division I colleges. Nothing. At the end of my junior year, I had run 46.7 in the 400m, which was probably top 10 in the nation for my class. So when it came to the July day when recruiting officially begins, I thought, "I'm going to get tons of calls." But not a single call.
It was so bad. I remember going through every possible reason I wasn't getting a call. I reached out to Tracy Sundlun, a former assistant track coach at USC, and asked him, "What do you think is going on?" Sundlun contacted some coaches, and they said, "One, it's never been done. We don't want to take that risk. Two, we don't know how to train him. Three, we don't know if he can run indoor." So our idea was, let's start knocking things off the list and show them it's possible, which we did. In late April of my senior year, I got the call from Arkansas. Earning a D-I scholarship to a Power 5 school is definitely one of my proudest accomplishments.
From the minute I arrived, the coaches said, "Whatever you want to do, we believe in you. You'll have to work for a spot. Nothing is given." It's exactly what I needed and wanted.
My first year was hard. I did not run well my whole freshman year until outdoor regionals. At one point, I had to take a six-week break because my body was dead: My quads felt like rocks. I had run 46.2 my senior year of high school; indoor my freshman year, I never ran faster than 48.6, and outdoor, I never ran faster than 47.3. Thankfully I finished my freshman year well, and I've carried that momentum ever since. Now with the season canceled and the Paralympics postponed, I'm just enjoying life. I haven't had a chance to sit and relax in a long time. But I'm still training. I'm doing long runs and pool workouts. And my coaches said they'll send workouts I can do when I can find a track that's safe and open.
WHEN I WAS younger, I never would've imagined I'd be where I am now -- with running and in life. I love putting out content on social media and being open about my disability, my life and the things I do -- despite the fact that the biggest pushback I've experienced has been through social media. In high school, one of my race videos would be posted, and if I went through the comments, I knew they would destroy me. Now I brush off the little things.
In turn, I learned to use comedy as a way to make people feel comfortable with my situation. If I can make fun of myself before they do, then they have nothing to make fun of me for. And I really enjoy making people smile. A lot of times, it's corny things: I tattooed a pair of scissors on my leg last summer, as a reminder not to take things too seriously.
The biggest thing people don't realize -- me, along with anyone else -- this isn't something people like me with disabilities chose. I didn't choose to have my legs amputated and to run without legs. I'm just a normal kid trying to live my life and chase my dreams.