Caitlin Row

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November 20, 2012
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Heidi Duce: 'I love and embrace my disability'

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. - To pretty much anyone, Grand Junction resident Heidi Duce already appears to be an athletic overachiever. As a teenager, the now 22-year-old Colorado Mesa University student taught ice-climbing seminars at the Ouray Ice Fest. Plus, a new-found passion for kayaking progressed her outdoor skills (and thoughts for an adaptive sports career) even further. And now, the CMU senior will be taking off spring semester to train full-time as a competitive snowboarder. And she's doing all this with only one fully functioning leg.

"I don't see myself as having a disability," Duce said. "I've never known anything else."

According to Duce, she was born with Fibular Hemilia, a congenital defect where the development of her right leg never finished (she was born without a fibula and many foot and ankle bones). She's also had two amputations - the first as a toddler and the second two years ago.

Now, Duce wears a fully customized, high-tech, prosthetic leg with specific components for all her endeavors. Her newest leg was delivered this week in fact, after months of development. It comes with different foot attachments, she noted - one for rock-climbing, another for snowboarding, still others for ice climbing and kayaking.

"It has a vacuum system to hold it on," Duce said, and it's waterproof. "I started building it in September, and I've casted four times for it."

A prosthetic leg for competition doesn't come cheap, however. Duce said it carries a $20,000 price tag. (Luckily, insurance helps pay for some of it, she said.)

Duce's new leg arrives with some pretty big goals. The CMU senior is about the embark on a huge adventure. In her quest to compete at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Russia for snowboarding, she's transplanting to Summit County in December for winter training. After taking up residence in Frisco Dec. 14, Duce will begin months of intensive work with the Adaptive Action Sports U.S. Snowboarding Team at Copper Mountain. This also means she's putting her last semester of classes on hold and she'll likely graduate from CMU next winter.

"I'm so excited," she said.

As part of the adaptive snowboarding team, Duce said she'll be vying with 10 or more adaptive athletes for three spots to compete at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games - a goal she's hopeful to accomplish through lots of hard work.

"I will be competing all winter long," she said.

Training will be arduous. Duce said she's gearing up for 20-plus hours of weekly training "on the snow," with additional hours each day spent on cross-fit and dry-land exercise.

When she's not working out or traveling with the team, Duce additionally said she'd like to volunteer with adaptive sports programs based in Summit County.

Being an amputee has never slowed Duce down. In fact, she said it's encouraged her to do more and be more on a daily basis.

The aggressive, multi-sport athlete is currently working toward a major in adaptive physical education. Plus, she travels, attends class, and works out constantly, all the while making time for those she loves - her parents and siblings, plus a family of friends living in the Grand Valley.

"I love and embrace my disability," Duce said. "It's the greatest thing that could have ever happened to me because, without it, I wouldn't be who I am today. It's given me a positive outlook on life and many opportunities. I couldn't imagine it any other way."

Plus, Duce said her family (parents Steve and Becky, siblings Steven and Eva) never taught her to feel different or held her back because of her leg.

"I did everything everybody else did growing up," she said, including all kinds of sports and even after-school work at her dad's service station (Timber Ridge Service Station in Ouray). "I can service cars and do basic repairs. I work on my own car all the time."

Being born and raised in Ouray - a top ice-climbing destination on Colorado's Western Slope - got Duce her start in the adaptive sports world.

"It's my roots, a huge part of who I am," she said, though it's recently taken a back seat to her snowboarding and kayaking.

A six-week backpacking trip to Africa with CMU's Outdoor Program at the end of 2010 solidified Duce's bold interest in kayaking. Watching fellow travelers kayak down the Zambezi River encouraged her to improve her skills, and less than two years later she's more than managing Class IV (and some V) rapids on her own. She even spent the summer living out of her car, kayaking every day in Buena Vista.

"(Kayaking) is my greatest passion right now, hands down," Duce added.

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The Post Independent Updated Nov 21, 2012 08:44PM Published Nov 20, 2012 03:06PM Copyright 2012 The Post Independent. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.