Athlete Feature – Heather Heckman-McKenna
“I have never known joy, like skiing. Having that taken away from me was really hard. So, it is really impactful for me to be here doing this.”
Those who make winter sports a part of their lifestyle will understand. We see the weather pattern change and we get excited. We feel the bite of cold in the air and we come alive. Knowing the impending arrival of the first snow is how we push ourselves through the other seasons. Heather’s original winter sport of choice was hockey. As the goalie of Boston’s first Professional Women’s Hockey Team, being on the ice was her life. It was home. Using sports as a form of mental therapy, and with a tremendous capacity to manage through pain, Heather mastered her sport, in spite of her disabilities.
Heather has a congenital bone structure issue where the bones in her legs essentially don’t fit together. This results in bilateral subluxations, on a bad day, about 50 to 60 times. It usually happens while in motion, without warning. Her knees slip in and out, all stability is gone, and the grinding sensation causes unimaginable pain. Pushing through this condition, Heather became an incredibly accomplished hockey player. At the age of 27 she suffered a bad accident, crushing her dominant hand. It took nine reconstructive surgeries to get her hand operating again. With this accident, she lost her ability to play hockey. “Sports is my mental health. It always has been. Being physically active and using my body, all of it,” Heather shares.
In an effort to maintain her mobility, Heather took up skiing. Unfortunately, around this same time, her knee subluxations began to worsen. With the prognosis that she would end up in a wheelchair in the near future, sports disappeared from her life.
After battling depression from loss of mobility, Heather discovered the world adaptive sports. First, with the handbike. “You have two wheels in the back and one in the front, and your mechanism for propulsion is through your hands,” Heather says. With her sport spirit awake again, in 2018, Heather competed in the World Handbike Battle in Austria. In 2019, she went back to that competition, and beat her time by an incredible 89 minutes.
With the urge to push further, and get back to her home in the snow, Heather began to research adaptive Winter sports. While pursuing her PhD in Literature, from the University of Missouri, Heather attended a conference in Denver. At this same moment, a winter storm system was making its way into Colorado, and true to her form, Heather heard the mountains calling and decided to extend her trip. After finding Ignite’s website, she decided to take advantage of the scholarship program and head up to Eldora.
“I love the (Ignite’s) mission that anybody should be able to come and do this. That was really meaningful to me,” Heather shares. She found herself in the capable hands of Ignite volunteer instructors Jason Kawaguchi and Connie Eppich, learning how to ski on the bi-ski. “My instinct is to put my weight into things. I think that comes from hockey and skating, so letting the edges do the work is really scary for me,” Heather says. But by day two Heather was in the powder with a smile on her face, skiing independently while tethered to an instructor.
“Without the scholarship program, I would not have been able to do this,” Heather says, “Getting people who otherwise don’t have access to movement is incredibly liberating and confidence instilling. Just giving everybody the chance to grow is really powerful.”
Ignite Adaptive Sports does not turn anyone away for a disability or ability to pay. Ignite is comprised of over 240 volunteers who are specially trained to provide safe, fun, and educational experiences for persons with disabilities. As Heather continues to improve on her bi-ski form, and as each storm system moves through the state, bringing us closer to the 2019/2020 season, we will continue to count the days until our season open. We will look forward to the days when we can once again have the privilege of helping people like Heather get back to their home on the snow and ice.