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How Utah double-amputee runner went from a novelty to a legend

Editor's note: First in a two-part series on Hunter Woodhall, the double amputee who has risen from a novelty act to a state champion, state record holder and winner of a Division I athletic scholarship.

SYRACUSE — Perhaps no prep athlete in the history of the state has captured the public’s attention quite like Hunter Woodhall, the sprinter from Syracuse High. He stole the show during the spring track and field season. He was dominant on the track and the talk in the stands. He didn’t just break all-class state records, he obliterated them; he didn’t just win races — when he crossed the finish line the competition was often in another area code. He was so fast that some of the finest college track and field programs in the country called to ask if they could pay for his schooling.

But it wasn’t just Woodhall’s speed that captured attention; it was how he did it — from atop a set of J-shaped, carbon-fiber blades. Woodhall has no feet and only part of his lower legs. He was born with undeveloped fibulas, the smaller of the two bones that reach from the knee to the ankle. Both legs were amputated above the ankle when he was a baby. To run, he wears prosthetics that propel him around the track in long, track-eating strides.

Some view performances by blade runners with awe; others think those springy blades give them an unfair advantage over athletes who run on flesh-and-blood legs, believing those blades are analogous to giving a high jumper a pogo stick. In one moment of ugliness during the state meet a spectator shouted, “You’re a cheater!” as Woodhall walked by on the track.

The Utah High School Activities Association received an anonymous email that was also sent to coaches around the state questioning the fairness of Woodhall’s prosthetics during the state track championships, where he set state records in the 200- and 400-meter dashes. Few responded, perhaps because of the awkwardness of questioning the participation of someone who is not only an innocent, dedicated 18-year-old honor roll student, but one who also has overcome the loss of two limbs and triumphed.

Syracuse High School's Hunter Woodhall wins the 5A Boy's 400-meter race at the 2017 State Track & Field Championships at Brigham Young University in Provo on Saturday, May 20, 2017. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“He went from a novelty to a legend in four years,” says Roger Buhrley, who coached Woodhall for a couple of years before handing him off to the U.S. Paralympic team.

In response to an email, a UHSAA official wrote, “One thing is for sure, it is a hot topic and will gain steam on a national level from the NFHS (National Federation of High Schools), as well … we are governed by the NFHS rules and at this point NFHS has not placed a restriction on this particular situation.”

The UHSAA recognizes Woodhall's times as state records, but Track and Field News, the so-called "Bible of the Sport," lists Woodhall's 400-meter time, which would rank 10th nationally, under a separate category: "With prosthetics." As TFN high school editor Jack Shepard explained in response to an email, "The placement in a sub-category in no way demeans one's abilities. It is somewhat like putting wind-aided marks in a separate category."

The news of Woodhall's exploits has spread. There have been stories about him in The New York Times, Bleacher Report and ESPN, to name some. “I’m building my stage,” is the way the ambitious Woodhall puts it, noting that some companies offered to sponsor him if he wanted to turn pro right out of high school. He passed. Instead, he will compete for the University of Arkansas, a track and field powerhouse that beat Oregon, USC, UCLA, BYU and Texas for his services.

Woodhall is not the first disabled athlete to earn a Division I track and field scholarship — that is Texas-Arlington’s Tobi Fawehinmi, a triple jumper born with shoulder dystocia, resulting in an underdeveloped left arm. But Woodhall is the first double amputee to be awarded a D-I scholarship, and his disability is much more challenging than Fawehinmi’s for obvious reasons.

Arkansas coach Chris Bucknam says his staff barely discussed the challenge of coaching a Paralympic athlete. “Maybe for half a minute,” he says. “Obviously, it’s human nature to talk about that. But it’s all about running fast and scoring for the team. We just see one of the best sprinters in the country.”

Bucknam was impressed that Woodhall elected to come to Arkansas, which has ranked among the premier track and field programs in the country for years and competes in the sprint-rich Southeastern Conference.

“He had no fear in his eyes,” says the coach. “Some recruits come in and they’re intimidated. He wants to be where he can be challenged.”

Meanwhile, Woodhall finds himself at the nexus of science, political correctness/inclusiveness and fairness in sports, and he likely will face further scrutiny and possibly tests to measure whatever advantages he might have. “I’m sure once I get to the NCAA they’ll want to test again and we’ll go from there,” he says. “I’m ready for it.”

Woodhall and his camp respond to charges of unfairness by claiming that his records and victories in able-bodied competitions are not the result of technology but of hard work. That conclusion is debatable, but no one can dispute his unrelenting, hard-driving work ethic. Buhrley recalls showing up at school on a Sunday so he could get things done on the team’s day off and then seeing Woodhall on the track, training alone. He saw him frequently on hot summer days laboring through solo workouts.

“I think he’s never taken more than a month off for three years,” says Buhrley.

For the past two years, Woodhall has been coached by Joaquim Cruz, the 1984 Olympic 800-meter champion who now coaches able-bodied and Paralympic athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. He emails workouts to Woodhall each week and they visit often on the phone or via FaceTime to discuss the day’s training session.

The workouts are brutal, many of them more like that of an 800-meter runner than a sprinter. Repeat 700-meter runs. Repeat 600s. Eight times 200 meters with 30 to 45 seconds rest. Repeat 300s at a 100 percent effort, each one followed by a series of exercises interspersed with jogging.

Cruz also put him on an intense weight-training program, and when Woodhall returned for his senior year, the difference in his physique was dramatic. Where he was once a little doughy and soft, he showed up ripped and chiseled. Woodhall, who is about 6 foot 4 on his blades, weighs only 160 pounds (he notes the obvious — that he doesn’t have lower legs, which accounts for the light weight).

Cruz also referred Woodhall to Liz Broad, the nutritionist at the training center, because, as Cruz puts it, “He was eating like a teenager.” Woodhall now eats five meals a day — a breakfast of oatmeal, peanut butter and bananas; a mid-morning snack of apples, almonds and cheese; a lunch of quinoa rice, poultry or fish and vegetables (kale, spinach, broccoli); a protein shake following his afternoon workout; and dinner, which repeats lunch. Before bed he might snack on a tablespoon of peanut butter or cottage cheese “to keep the amino acids going through the night.”

Besides a private coach and dietician, Woodhall has a masseuse he visits regularly. He is nothing if not disciplined. He bathes his legs in Epsom salts (rather than ice) and is in bed, lights out, by 10:30.

“I don’t just show up in March (as most kids do),” Woodhall says. “It’s year round. I train like an elite athlete.”

Asked about his aspirations, he says, “The biggest thing now is that I want to make it happen at college; I want to win an NCAA championship.” Before that, he hopes to win a gold medal at the World Paralympic Championships in London July 14-23. He has targeted 45.9 as his goal for the 400.

The seeds for such ambition were sewn by South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius — aka The Blade Runner. Pistorius, a double-amputee, made world headlines by competing in the 2012 London Olympic Games. It was Woodhall’s first exposure to Paralympic athletics.

“It gave me an idea that it was possible,” says Woodhall, “but the problem was I was struggling so much I didn’t see it as possible for me.”

By his own estimation, he was not a natural athlete and he struggled to find his place in the neighborhood athletic scene. He moved to Syracuse at the age of 4 after his father retired from the Air Force and started a business that specializes in cleaning coal-fired power plants with explosives. Woodhall, like his two older brothers, was home-schooled until the fifth grade. When he transitioned to public school, he became an obvious target for bullies. Sports can open doors for boys, but not for him.

“I was not the most athletic kid,” he says. “That didn’t help. The transition was extremely hard.”

That year was marked by two other events: His parents hired a personal trainer for their youngest son, and he got a new set of legs — the blades. They cost about $18,000, but Shriners Hospital, which performed Woodhall’s amputations when he was 11 months old and fitted him with artificial legs four months later, covered the cost of that first pair of blades and every pair he has had since then.

“They’ve done it all,” says Woodhall. “Without them, I wouldn’t be running at all.” Woodhall, a polished public speaker, serves as an ambassador for Shriners, giving speeches at events around the country.

It took time for Woodhall to adapt to the blades at the age of 10, but they opened a new world for him. “It was an extremely good feeling,” he says. “I had never been able to run like that. I could feel that return — I pushed down and something’s coming back up. My old (artificial) legs were like running with brick feet — my calves and ankles didn’t push back.”

Woodhall continued to struggle in sports, but he persisted in trying them all — baseball, soccer, football, wrestling, track. Buhrley recalls seeing Woodhall race for the first time in the seventh grade. “He finished dead last,” he says.

“No matter how much I worked I was the same,” says Woodhall. “I was at the back of the pack.”

Burhley is one of the most respected and knowledgeable coaches in the state, but he wasn’t certain what to do when Woodhall showed up as a high school freshman. At one point, Woodhall asked Burhley for help with his start. The coach told him, “I can’t help you. I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve never coached anyone like you.” He arranged for him to meet with Marlon Shirley, a single-leg amputee from Utah and former Paralympic 100-meter gold medalist.

For whatever reason — maturity probably — Woodhall began to improve rapidly in high school. As a freshman he dropped his 400 time from 63 seconds to 52. After the season ended, he spent a few weeks that summer at the Olympic training center in California to work with the national Paralympic team.

He returned for a six-week stay the following summer and in the summer of 2016 he lived there for three months during the buildup to the Paralympics in London. It was at the training center that he met Cruz, who proceeded to tear down Woodhall and rebuild him while developing a comprehensive training program.

Hunter Woodhall, left, runs the final leg in the Men's 4x100m in the Olympic Stadium at the Paralympic Games, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sept. 12, 2016. | Bob Martin for OIS

The results have been dramatic. As a junior, Woodhall made another quantum leap, dropping his best 400 time from 49.5 as a sophomore to 47.4 in the high school state championships and 46.7 in the Paralympic Games in Rio, where he won silver medals in the 200 and 400 and was the youngest athlete to stand on the podium.

In one year he cut three seconds off his 400. This year he won 5A state championships in the 200 and 400 against able-bodied runners with times of 21.17 and 46.23. It’s also worth noting that Woodhall covered 100 meters in a solid 11.06 and 800 meters in 1 minute, 54 seconds (the latter in a medley relay).

Because of the inherent difficulties of the start for blade runners, they tend to do better in the longer sprints, especially the 400-meter distance. It is widely agreed that the 400 is the most brutal race in track and field. That’s because the human body was built to perform at full throttle for roughly 300 meters; after that, it’s no man’s land, the place where the body is starved of oxygen and legs turn to lead. Able-bodied rivals run away from Woodhall in the first 100 meters as he struggles to build momentum, and then he explodes down the backstretch. While everyone else is gasping on the homestretch, he is pulling away, bounding down the track with seeming ease.

What most rivals and spectators don't see are the unique challenges Woodhall endures. He tends to get blistered and raw where the top of the prosthetic leg grips his leg like a boot, and the ends of his legs take a beating from smashing into the bottom of the prosthetic. He also has fallen to the track numerous times in workouts and races.

During one relay race several runners fell to the track and Woodhall, running behind them, wasn’t agile enough on those blades to move around them and crashed hard to the track. He once did a face plant 10 meters from the finish line. One coach wrote in response to the UHSAA email that he was inspired by Woodhall for all of the reasons above.

Asked what drives him, Woodhall says, “I realize the opportunities I’ve had. I’ve met a lot of people who didn’t get those opportunities. I don’t want it to go to waste. I want to show people what’s possible. And a lot of people have supported me along the way — friends, family, Shriners. I don’t want to let them down.”

Tomorrow: Part II explores more in-depth the issue of Woodhall and other blade runners competing against able-bodied athletes.