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Paralympic Silver Medalist Overcomes Adversity with Positive Mindset

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Hunter Woodhall

Razorback runner Hunter Woodhall waits for the starting gun at the Arkansas Invitational on January 12.

Most college kids have a routine of waking up, putting on shoes and leaving for the day ahead. For one track and field athlete, his regimen includes waking up, putting on his prosthetic legs one at a time and tackling the upcoming 24 hours with a smile on his face regardless of the cards he’s been dealt. 

Hunter Woodhall is a double amputee, and he's been that way since he was born with a rare birth defect called fibular hemimelia, a condition in which all or part of the fibula bone is missing. He was homeschooled until the fifth grade, which kept him from experiencing an outside world that perceived him as different.

“In my household, I’m not the weird one. My brothers were,” Woodhall said. “My brothers had legs, which was the odd part out. They never treated me different. It is what it is.”

This birth defect is so rare that one out of 25,000 babies are diagnosed, according to Steps Charity. His right ankle was locked, limiting his motion to accomplish everyday tasks such as running or walking. 

“When I was first born, the doctors told my parents I wouldn’t walk,” Woodhall said. “They figured out amputation was the option or just being in a wheelchair.”

When Woodhall was just 11 months old, he had both legs amputated from the knee down to ensure the best quality of life he could have.

When the time came to enter grade school, Woodhall said the experience was one of the most difficult he’s ever had. It wasn’t until he started being around more people that he noticed he was singled out because of his differences.

“I got bullied a lot in fifth and sixth grade. It was a time where people were figuring themselves out, and it makes it easier to make fun of someone else,” Woodhall said. “It took time for me to figure it out, but in junior high, I found some friends. That’s why I joined track.”

Before the Syracuse, Utah, native was a track athlete, he ran 5K races with his family from time to time. As the years passed, he developed a passion that ultimately led to a future as a student-athlete. The challenging part was picking which sport he wanted to commit to.

“I had a dream to become a college athlete,” Woodhall said. “Whatever sport, but it was originally football. As the years went on I started to focus on track.”

When Woodhall became serious about his goals, his family provided him with his first pair of running blades so he could run and eventually compete. He said he still remembers the first time he competed with his blades. 

“When I run, I don’t remember much. Halfway through the race I blank out,” Woodhall said. “I remember I felt awesome until I finished. I was destroyed. When I first started running, I was happy to be there, but as I started to develop, I was less content with losing, and I started to become more competitive. I started to train harder and work more intently.”

Woodhall said he believes his differences made him the way he is today and have allowed him to achieve goals he never thought possible. Instead of questioning his circumstances, he began to embrace what made him different. 

“I kind of always knew I was different, but it was the evolution of how I perceived it,” Woodhall said. “When I got into school, I was asking, ‘Why me’ and ‘Why do I have to deal with this’.”

This change occurred when he developed a core group of people that supported him through the adversity in his life.

His mom, Barb, his dad, Steve, and his brothers Brendan and Spencer have had a huge impact on the runner today, he said.

“My parents never gave me an excuse to use my legs as a reason to quit,” Woodhall said. “Same with my brothers. They have always pushed me to be my best and follow my dreams.”

His family, friends and coaches have pushed him to reach for his goals, and running in college was one of them.

Because of the runner’s success on the track, Woodhall said he thought he would receive phone calls from colleges during July of his junior year, the time coaches can legally call athletes in regards to scholarships.

When the time came around, the phone was slow to ring.

“Months went by,” Woodhall said. “BYU, the local school called me. I took a visit and was offered 10-percent scholarship.”

Woodhall said recruiting was a difficult experience, because the offers were not there despite an inflow of letters from schools and the international experience he already had.

He competed in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics for the USA and received a silver medal in the 200-meter race and a bronze medal in the 400-meter race.

Most recently, Woodhall raced in the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships in London and received a silver medal in both the 200-meter race and 400-meter race.

As time went on, Woodhall had to decide if he even wanted to chase his dream of being a student-athlete any longer.

Several influential track personalities helped network for Woodhall, including Bob Babbitt, Tracy Sundlun and Joaquim Cruz, the former Brazilian middle-distance runner and Olympian. His achievements on the track garnered him the recognition of being a top runner in the nation. The interest that followed came from top track schools: North Carolina, Oregon, Southern California, UCLA and Arkansas.

After talking with his support group, Woodhall narrowed the field down to two: Oregon and Arkansas.

“Oregon is known as the mecca of college track and field,” Woodhall said. “I was starstruck, but from the first hour I was at Arkansas, I knew this was where I wanted to go.”

The night before he made his decision, Woodhall said both coaches from Oregon and Arkansas were calling, but he turned off his phone and talked it over with his friends for three hours.

“I got over the (Oregon) name, and I thought about what was going to be the best decision for me as an athlete and a person,” Woodhall said. “Everything pointed to Arkansas.” 

Woodhall said he gives credit to the difficult process he went through as an adolescent as the reason he developed a positive and tenacious mindset.

“This whole process has been about inspiring people and changing other people's perceptions,” Woodhall said. “I wanted to show people no matter what your situation is or what you’ve dealt with, you can accomplish amazing things.”

Now he has accomplished his goal to be a collegiate athlete, and Woodhall said he has his eyes set on one lofty goal: winning a national championship as a Razorback runner.

Woodhall’s teammate, six-time All-American junior Obi Igbokwe, said the freshman has the right kind of work ethic to accomplish that feat.

“Training with him isn’t like training with anyone else in the aspect that he is a monster athlete,” Igbokwe said. “He pushes the hell out of me, but where he differs from even me is after sprint reps for his rest he continues to jog around. That blows my mind because I’ll be on the floor, and he’ll still be running around. His work ethic is amazing, and he’s such a nice, humble, all-around good guy.”

Woodhall is the first double amputee to ever receive a DI track scholarship, according to the United States Olympic Committee.

Sophomore Laquan Narin, a triple jumper and long jumper for Arkansas, said Woodhall’s unlikely rise to prominence has been inspiring to the entire track team.

“Knowing that there are 7.5 billion people in this world and knowing that he is the only one of his kind who got accepted to the university for any sport (is inspiring),” Narin said. “Every day he comes to practice and he motivates me to work hard.” 

“If you have goals and you have dreams, you’re not going to worry about what other people think,” Woodhall said. “You just buckle in and get it done.The differences are the things that make us so special.The differences are the things that are going to make you successful.”

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