Six-time gold medalist Brenna Huckaby will be allowed to compete in the Beijing Winter Paralympics, a German court ruled on Thursday.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) eliminated the U.S. snowboarder's event classifications in June 2019, saying there weren't enough women to make them viable. The decision essentially disqualified Huckaby based on her level of impairment.
Huckaby is classified as an LL1 athlete, which signifies an above-the-knee amputation. Thursday's ruling will allow Huckaby to compete in the women's LL2 classification of athletes with below-the-knee amputations. It's a practice known as "competing up," which allows participants to move into a classification of less impaired athletes if their own is not viable for competition.
Huckaby has competed up in several World Cup circuit and earned podium finishes over the course of her career, and the practice has been permitted at past summer Paralympic events.
After the 2019 decision, Huckaby was reassured she'd be able to compete up at the 2022 Paralympics until the IPC released their Beijing qualification guidelines in early 2021. Those guidelines did not provide Huckaby a path to eligibility for the Games, so she tried to work with Team USA to secure a spot but learned the IPC would not change their stance. This led Huckaby and her legal team to file the injunction in November in Germany's Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court. The injunction also made a contingency case for Huckaby to compete with the LL1 men, among whom she's demonstrated herself competitive, earning four would-be top-five finishes.
"I am grateful that the court recognized the merits of my case and the broader impact of prioritizing inclusion," Huckaby told ESPN through her agent. "While this was a big win, there is always more work to be done, and I hope that this reminds adaptive athletes and the disabled community more broadly to never give up on our fight for inclusion."
The IPC initially told Huckaby there is nothing in the snowboarding rulebook that permits competition in another classification. Huckaby and her attorneys argued there was no rule disallowing it either, which made the IPC's decision discriminatory.
"We are extremely surprised and disappointed at the court's decision which shows a complete disregard for the rules and regulations of World Para Snowboard and the Beijing 2022 qualification criteria, and a lack of understanding of the classification system in Paralympic sport," IPC president Andrew Parsons said in a statement.
"This is my job, it is my career. So being told all of a sudden that you're excluded from your job with no rhyme or reason while everybody else gets to do it, it's heartbreaking," Huckaby said. "It's important to know that I don't have a whole entire back leg, don't have a knee. I am competing at a big challenge, but ... I just want the opportunity."
Huckaby, who turns 26 on Saturday, is a snowboard cross and banked slalom athlete who found her way to the sport after losing her right leg to a rare bone cancer in 2010 at the age of 14. After spending her youth as a gymnast, Huckaby said she chose snowboarding because it reminded her of the balance beam. One year later, she won her first world championship. She went on to win two gold medals in Pyeongchang in 2018 and four world championship golds in the past nine years.
In the week leading up to Thursday's hearing, athletes Aly Raisman, Jessica Long, Oksana Masters, Nick Baumgartner and others took to social media in support of Huckaby. Her own TikTok also went viral, leading lots of fans to jump on the hashtag #LetBrennaCompete.
"I have been holding this for almost a year. To see this outpouring of love and support, I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my chest and I'm sharing little bits of that weight with other people. I'm so freakin' lucky that people are willing to carry a piece of this weight with me," Huckaby said.
The Beijing Winter Paralympics are scheduled to begin March 4 with 78 events over six sports. Women's snowboarding has two medal events, down from six in the sport's Paralympic debut in Sochi in 2014.