These snowboarders had to wage a legal fight to compete. They finished on the podium anyway

Cecile Hernandez won gold in women's snowboard cross at the 2022 Winter Paralympics in Beijing, China
Getty Images

After the legal fight France’s Cecile Hernandez and Team USA’s Brenna Huckaby endured to reach Beijing, the turns, berms, and jumps ended up being the easy part. In the women’s snowboard cross final (LL2 classification) on Monday at the 2022 Winter Paralympics, Hernandez and Huckaby claimed gold and bronze, respectively. Canada’s Lisa DeJong won the silver.

As in nearly every Paralympic sport, para snowboarders are classified by disability. The goal behind classification is to ensure that it is an athlete’s competitive ability – rather than their degree of disability – that determines whether they win a medal.

Huckaby, who lost her right leg to bone cancer in 2010, and Hernandez, who has multiple sclerosis, are both classified in the LL1 category. Four years ago at the 2018 PyeongChang Paralympics, they finished on the podium in both women’s LL1 snowboarding events (banked slalom and snowboardcross).

But in 2019, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) nixed two of the women’s classifications (including LL1) from the Beijing program, citing the depth of the competitive field. As a result, women have just two snowboarding events in Beijing, while men have six.

MORE WINTER PARALYMPICS COVERAGE: Last fall, the Paralympics weren’t on Sydney Peterson’s radar. She just won silver in her debut

Because LL1 is for athletes with a more significant impairment than those in LL2, Huckaby requested to “compete up” – either with the LL2 women or LL1 men. The argument was that her disability put her at a disadvantage compared to the LL2 women, meaning she wouldn’t have an unfair advantage over the rest of the field.

“I would rather compete at a disadvantage than not compete at all,” Huckaby explains.

A variety of Paralympic sports allow “competing up.” In track and field, for example, it is common for events to include multiple classifications.

But in snowboarding, that is against the rules. Huckaby and Hernandez’s request was denied by both the IPC and World Para Snowboard in the lead-up to the Beijing Games.

Their lawyer, Christof Wieschemann, sought an injunction. Huckaby’s successful appeal came through first, on January 27, after Wieschemann argued that the classification process is meant to “protect the weak against the strong,” and not the other way around.

Hernandez, 47, had to wait longer for her verdict. A final hearing was held last Thursday, the day before the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympics.

“Can you imagine what that is like? I did not sleep for two nights. The stress was so much, and it was making my M.S. worse,” Hernandez told the New York Times.

MORE WINTER PARALYMPICS NEWS: How an invitation to ‘lunch’ launched wheelchair curler Oyuna Uranchimeg’s Paralympic career

In the final of the women’s snowboard cross final at Genting Snow Park, Hernandez – as in all of her previous runs – led from the start. When she crossed the finish line, she clutched her helmet, as if in disbelief. DeJong finished right behind, claiming silver.

“I still do not realize what happened,” Hernandez said in the finish area. “To do everything I did to be here and then to earn this gold medal, it was a dream, and now that dream has come true.”

Midway through the final, Huckaby made contact with the Netherlands Lisa Bunschoten, sending both riders to the snow. Bunschoten rode off the course, opting not to finish, but Huckaby got to her feet and completed the run. After officials reviewed footage of the incident, Huckaby’s bronze was confirmed.

Beijing 2022 Winter Paralympics - Day 3
BEIJING, CHINA: Brenna Huckaby of the United States (green bib) and Lisa Bunschoten of the Netherlands (purple bib) crash in the women’s snowboard cross final (SB-LL2) at the 2022 Winter Paralympic Games. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

“Unfortunately, collisions happen in our sport, and I got caught up in a collision and it took me out [of] first or second, but I got back up,” Huckaby told NBC Sports reporter Andrea Joyce.

DeJong, competing in her Paralympic debut, was thrilled with her silver medal. “Just to make it in the big final, I felt like I already did what I came here to do. To come in second is amazing,” she said.

Video of the Women’s Snowboard Cross Final (LL2) at the 2022 Winter Paralympics:

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC