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In 2017, Kiana Clay’s world fell apart. At the time, she was living in Texas, launching a photography business. “In a three-month span, my parents divorced, my fiancé and I broke up, all my camera equipment was stolen, and I wrecked my truck,” she says. “I was homeless and depressed.”
In the year prior, Clay, who has complete paralysis in her upper right arm, traveled to Copper Mountain to try out snowboarding at Adaptive Action Sports (AAS). There she had met three-time Paralympic medalist Amy Purdy and her husband Daniel Gale. “Amy and Daniel told me, ‘You could be the first female with an upper-limb disability to represent the United States in this category and make this pathway for future athletes,’” says Clay. With little else going her way, she decided to return to AAS, take them up on that offer, and throw herself into snowboarding full-time.
Four years later, Clay has proven capable of completing the vision Purdy and Gale laid out in her first visit to AAS. She is even trying to make it happen sooner than originally planned. While females with upper-limb disabilities will be allowed to compete in the 2026 Winter Paralympics, they are not currently permitted to take part in the 2022 version of the event. She launched a petition this week, though, asking the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) to reconsider that decision.
Clay grew up in San Diego, California, where she and her parents dabbled in snowboarding at Big Bear Mountain Resort in the San Bernardino Mountains. Her childhood dream, though, was to be a professional motocross rider. She wanted to compete at the AMA/WMA Women’s National Motocross Championship, the world’s largest women’s motocross event.
But during a muddy motocross competition at the Freestone Raceway in Wortham, Texas, Clay’s back tire slid out as she landed a jump. A rider behind her landed on her neck, knocking her unconscious for several minutes. The then 12-year-old survived but she was diagnosed with a brachial plexus injury: the nerves connecting her spinal cord to her shoulder, arm, and hand were torn. Clay had complete paralysis of her dominant right arm. A month later, a drunk driver hit her dad’s truck while she was riding with him, cementing her arm’s disability.
Clay stayed physically active throughout middle and high school but missed powering a dirt bike along the track. “When I was 18 years old, I figured out a way to rig up a small pit bike, so that I could ride. My parents couldn’t legally say no. Two years later, I got into the 2015 Motor Sport Adaptive Race,” says Clay.
She was the first female to ever compete in the race. She also finished in third. Through that experience, she managed to meet world-class adaptive athlete Mike Schultz, who would eventually win a gold medal for snowboard cross—basically, a six-person race down an obstacle-filled course—at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Paralympics. At a post-race barbecue, Schultz encouraged her to visit the AAS program at Copper Mountain.
Purdy, a three-time Paralympic medalist, co-founded AAS in 2005, alongside now-husband Daniel Gale. Purdy lost both her legs below each knee when she contracted bacterial meningitis, a life-threatening blood disease at the age of 19. The AAS mission is to provide action sports recreation programs and high-level snowboard training for athletes with permanent physical disabilities. Heeding Schultz’s advice, Clay traveled to Summit County and spent a week riding with Purdy, Gale, and the AAS para snowboarders.
About a year later, that is where Clay returned to after she felt like she’d lost everything. “I thought, why not?” she says. “I stayed [in Colorado] and have given 200 percent of my life to snowboarding.”
Now, the 26-year-old competes in the para banked slalom and snowboard cross events and trains nearly every day on the snow and in the gym. She even works with specialists, including a therapist, nutritionist, and sports psychologist, and has recently started competitive skateboarding, too. All winter, she lines up at local United States of America Snowboard and Freeski Association (USASA) events. She travels globally, sometimes bi-monthly, for the World Cup circuit organized by World Para Snowboard, the sport’s international governing organization.
Many of those competitions have been canceled or postponed this past year, however, due to COVID-19. That’s part of the reason why the IPC voted to not include her category, female snowboarders with upper-limb disabilities, in the 2022 Winter Paralympics. “COVID-19 cut last season short,” she says, “and we didn’t have an opportunity to show we have enough numbers for the Paralympics.” Clay estimates there are 30 competitive female riders with upper-limb disabilities all over the world, including in China, New Zealand, and Spain.
That’s why she launched the petition this week, requesting her category of athlete be able to participate in next winter’s Paralympics. She will present her case to the IPC in the coming months. “Athletes like me all over the world have spent our money, time, and trained hard for this opportunity,” she says. “It’s difficult to grow our sport, to grow inclusion, and to bring more women on board when we’re not showcased.”
Regardless of the eventual verdict from the IPC, Clay will continue to get ready for her chance to shine on the world stage. “A girl with an upper-limb disability needs to know what’s possible,” she says.