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Episode 63: Navigating Life's Rapids with Heidi Jo Dent

If you're doing something without a purpose, stop doing it.

This week we're joined by Heidi Jo Dent - retired Team USA Paralympic snowboarder and all-around badass. Heidi talks about how she ended up joining the team, the heartbreak of breaking her prosthetic at the Sochi Olympics, finding new purpose as a special education teacher, and how outdoor recreation serves as the greatest equalizer.

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Episode Transcript

Lisa: Wow. It's already episode 25 of season four.

Iris: Wow. It's already October of 2019.

Lisa: It's insane.

Iris: how, how, how?

Lisa: How?

Iris: I don't know.

Lisa: This is Lisa.

Iris: This is Iris.

Lisa: Coming at you, Outside by Design.

Iris: We don't understand time.

Lisa: We don't understand time, but we do understand the business side of creativity.

Iris: We sure do, and that's why we're here. And hopefully that's why you're here.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. We've been hearing a lot of positive feedback about this podcast lately. Like, I'm getting a lot of emails, so if you, would like to be on the podcast or you wanna tell us how stupid our commercials are [laughs] then you can email us hello at wheelie dot com.

Iris: Yeah, we'd love to hear your thoughts on the podcast. Well, Lisa, today we have an incredible guest on the show.

Lisa: Yes. I really, really love Heidi Jo Dent. She is so much fun. I met her here in Whitefish at a mountain bike event and she's just killing it at being hilarious and nice and fun to be around and then just treading on mountain bikes. So I was thrilled when I found out after like three days of hanging out with her that she had formerly been a US Paralympian. So she'd been to the Olympics for Team USA, which is crazy it took that long to come up in conversation. And then I was like, boy, do we have a podcast for you.

Iris: Yes, we do. And she has an incredible story and you guys are about to hear it. She talks about… basically how she ended up on team USA for the Paralympics, how she ended up in Sochi and had some huge heartbreak during her competition there. She talks about how, as she calls herself an active amputee, how that creates a challenge with prosthetics and finding gear that works for her. She also talks about finding purpose in her new adventure, which is as a special education teacher, and Heidi Jo has so much to tell us and I'm excited for you guys to hear it.

Lisa: This is a fun one, enjoy.

Iris: Enjoy.

Lisa: Hey Heidi, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. I'm excited you're here.

Heidi Jo: Thanks. I'm stoked to be here.

Lisa: The first question we always ask everyone is to describe where they are and what they are looking at.

Heidi: Um, I am sitting at my kitchen table at my house in Washington state and I am looking out at my garden, which is flourishing right now, and I'm really stoked about it.

Lisa: Oh, nice. You guys don't have snow yet, huh?

Heidi Jo: No. Um, we actually live at a really low elevation. It's like 300 feet above sea level or something like that. Um, so we don't get snow until pretty late in the year, but when it comes, it comes feet at a time, usually.

Lisa: Yeah. Cool. Um, well, you are awesome and I'm really excited to have you on a podcast to hear about your journey as a Paralympic athlete and, um, the transition into your new life after, after the Olympics.

Heidi Jo: Awesome.

Lisa: Yeah. So do you want to tell us about yourself and tell us your story?

Heidi Jo: Sure. Um... I, I don't have my right leg. Um, I was born with a birth defect called fibular hemimelia, which basically just means that I was born without my fibula and then most of my foot and ankle bones. So when I was born, I had like two little toes and this crazy, like, stump thing. And they chopped that off when I was 13 months old.

And so I grew up, um, in a really small mountain town. Uh, I think that we had like 600 full time residents, and a school that has... had like 250 kids in it, preschool through 12th grade. And so I grew up being the only amputee in my town and the only amputee I really knew for a long time.

And that was like, the best thing ever, because I never learned what it meant to be disabled or what like that… that idea of being disabled is. Like, I was just another one of the kids, I ran around, I did all of the things. And then when I was about 11, I was at the Shriner's hospital in Salt Lake getting... I had just come out of a knee surgery and I got approached by some people that were getting ready to start a snowboarding camp, uh, for amputees.

And they're like, hey, do you wanna... do you want to be a part of this? And I was like, I mean, yeah, my older sister skis and snowboards, and I've always really looked up to her and… of course I want to go, I get to get out of school for a week and go play in the mountains. Yeah. Um, and that's just how I got my start into snowboarding. And I did that. I would travel for a week to Utah every year and do that all the way up until I graduated high school. Um, and then after I graduated high school, I went to... well, actually my senior year of high school, I got super into ice climbing. Ouray, the town I grew up in is, actually a Mecca for ice climbing. And I'd had some friends who were really into super into it, like older friends, friends of our family, and they had always, like, offered my parents to let me take us ice climbing. But neither of my parents are big fans of it. And so when I was a senior, I'm like, Oh, you guys can't really say no anymore. I'm gonna go ice climbing.

And that just was really awesome for me because it introduced me to a whole nother kind of like outdoor sport that... and like the world of outdoor rec, which, um, that world has shaped who I am and has shaped nearly every single decision I've made from that point on.

But yeah, so I got into ice climbing and then when I went to college, I got hired on at the outdoor rec program there, um, to help lead ice climbing trips. And while I was working for them, I ended up with a second amputation on the same leg. Um, I had some pretty severe, like, nerve and bone damage, so that chopped another four inches off my stump. And while I was working for the outdoor rec program. I just became this whole different person, like everything from my political views, to my body type, to my friends, to like what I wanted to do with my life. It all kind of shifted. And a side effect of working for an outdoor rec program like the one I worked for, was I got all these life experiences, not the best grades in college. [laughs]

So I was at the point, um, I was starting my fifth year as... my fifth year, I was a fifth year senior at this point, and just floundering. I had no idea what I wanted to do. Um, I'd gotten... gotten into whitewater kayaking, very, like, aggressively, and that's where all of like my time and money was going. And I was thinking about dropping out of school and going down to Chile to go just kayak and bum down there for a while, when snowboarding was announced that it was going to be a part of the US Paralympic team or the... or not the US Paralympic team, but of the Paralympic circuit.

Which I had known about, like, I had had some like, interactions with... just ‘cause the active amputee community is pretty tight knit and small. So I had had, I had... it was on my radar and I had had people approach me about doing it, but at that point, like snowboarding wasn't a huge part of my life. It's something I did, but it wasn't something that I felt super passionate about. But then it got announced and I, I got like the official invite to come train for a team while I was at work at the outdoor rec program. And my boss, Chad, who just is probably one of the biggest inspirations in my life, uh, heard me get the call and proceeded to hear me to turn it down.

And he just like, pulls me and he's like, what are you saying Heidi? And Chad has like a very dirty mouth. So there was like lots of F words and like, very much passion about how I was making just a horrible decision and that I needed to like, call them back and and try this. He's like, you get to be a part of something that's never been done before. You're at the forefront of your sport. And he knew that I wanted to do something, like, when I was done with school that somehow involved people that live with various challenges and doing something to affect change. And he was like, this is how you do that. And he gave me this, like, insane speech about how I needed to call the coach back and accept this, like, offer that they were giving me. And then he handed me his phone and made me call them.

And so I dropped out of school and I packed all my stuff in my car and I moved to, uh, Copper Mountain. And that's where I trained with my, um, my first ever, like, snowboard team. I lived in a house with them. And, uh, it turned out I was like pretty good at boardercross. Um, I, I was fortunate cause it was a pretty new sport, so the field wasn't overly deep, so it was a really good time to get into it. And I, I did really well at my first Noran and got an invite to get onto the world cup circuit.

And then that just kind of spiraled. So after my first season, I competed in - two world cups, three world cups? I don't remember. Um, and I, I podiumed in all three, and then I ended up being the US national champion that year. And then, that secured me a spot on the US team. And then that's what I did for a few years, I worked random jobs in the summertime and trained and followed winter, and I got to see a sport, like, blossom from nothing to become a huge sport. I got to compete in Sochi, Russia, um, which was really amazing. It was also very heartbreaking for me. I snapped my prosthetic foot right before the race, and I raced on broken foot. And I went into that race ranked second in the world and I ended up placing sixth.

Lisa Aww.

Heidi Jo: Um, which was really hard for me. It was like the one time - like, my whole town at home who had just supported me, like both financially and just like mentally to get there. And all of my friends and family were watching and a lot of them, that's the only time they've ever gotten to see me snowboard. And I just, I was horrible. I disqualified on a couple of my runs and... it was, like I said, heartbreaking for me. Um, but it was still amazing and it was a great experience.

And then, um, let's see here. A couple of years later, uh, there was some change in staffing for the snowboard team, and I had a difference in philosophy and perspective of the new changes that were going on with the team. And I kind of took that as a sign that it was time for me to be done. So I retired and uh, within a year of me retiring, I finished my bachelor's degree. I got married, I bought a house, I got a dog, and I moved to Washington state.

Lisa: Oh, wow.

Heidi Jo: Yeah.

Lisa: Wow. Okay, Heidi, that's an awesome life story and I have so many questions.

Heidi Jo: Okay.

Lisa: That was amazing. Okay. So. You, you broke your prosthetic fun right before your race?

Heidi Jo: Oh my God. Yes. It was horrible. So, um, so leading up to the Olympics, they tell you like, you have so many meetings and just so many trainings and there's just so, there's so much stuff that you don't realize goes into the Olympics, but like, you're a part of it right?

And like, Ossur, the company of foot that I was riding, they had a booth there. And they're like, yeah, there's spare Olympic, like, leg parts. In hindsight, I should have brought an extra foot. I didn't, and I snapped it. So I actually snapped it in training the day before and I went to Ossur and they didn't have a foot that would work. Um, and, uh, we tried a couple of things, but nothing that would have- would have worked for me, because I have such small feet. And at that point I was riding on a foot that was, um, really low profile and they just didn't have any there. So we like, pieced it together and it like, kind of worked. But then, like, my training run of the race, like the piecing together just kind of fell apart. And so I couldn't use my toe side. So every time, like I would go to turn on to the tow side of my snowboard, um, my foot would just collapse underneath me. It was horrible, but it's okay. It's okay! It was a really good learning experience. I learned a lot from that. Um, I immediately stopped snowboarding on that foot and I got a foot from an amazing company that I still use to this day for snowboarding and mountain biking that is designed by a friend of mine who has a company. He is an amputee himself. He, um. My, my new foot has like a Fox shock. It's, it's, it's 100% better and I, I wouldn't have probably like addressed that if I hadn't broke the foot. And I also learned a very valuable lesson about having my shit together before I go out and do something important.

Lisa: Wow. You really have a positive spin on that. I'm really impressed.

Heidi Jo: Well, thanks. I didn't the day it happened. If it makes you feel better.

[both laugh]

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Iris: I love Heidi's attitude about her prosthetic breaking in the Olympics because that is so, so heartbreaking, but she's found a way to turn it into a positive, turn it into a learning experience, and just she has such a great outlook on life.

Lisa: She's got that growth mindset.

Iris: She really does. So along those same lines of finding that heartbreak and trying to deal with it, Heidi's about to talk about creativity in her life when it comes to gear.

Lisa: Yeah. And just being able to make things happen.

Iris: Yeah. Let's hear it.

Lisa: Wow. And so, like, this podcast is about creativity and the outdoor industry. And I hear you saying that, you know, you guys were trying things and trying to figure out how to make this foot work. And I mean, is that part of your life? Is that like a lifestyle for you or how... how does your unique challenge kind of forced creativity into your life?

Heidi Jo: Oh, yeah, totally. Um, every single day. So something that's, that's fun about being an amputee. And like I said earlier, like I've... And something that was actually really difficult for me when I was, I was snowboarding professionally is I felt like I had shifted from being defined as who I am as a person to being defined as who I am as an amputee. Which is, to people who maybe don't live with some sort of significant challenge, that might not be a big distinction, but I've really strived my entire life not to be... not to be held back or, or thought of as an amputee first. Um, like I hate the word “inspire.” Like if you ever tell me that I inspire you because I don't have a leg, I probably gonna punch you in the face.

Like, I would rather hear like, yeah, you're awesome because you do all this stuff and you do it awesome- and you do it and you... sure, you don't have a leg. But that's not why you're inspiring. You're inspiring cause you do other stuff, you know. Um, so when I was competing, like I... and I was in a world with people who I am still in contact with and I truly love, like tons of really amazing athletes that do inspire me, but not because they do what they do with a prosthetic, just because of the fact that they do what they do, you know?

Lisa: Yeah.

Heidi Jo: And so... To bring that into like the creativity and figuring it out, the amount of amputees that are like really like active, um, is really small. If you look at the entire population of people that live with... with, um, with any amputation. And so 90% of prosthetic equipment is... and like the way prosthetics are designed, they're not designed for people who get out and do stuff. I mean, they're designed for people who are pretty sedentary, and that's like slowly shifting, um, there's actually quite a bit of like research and stuff going into really awesome prosthetic technology, a lot of which is coming from like, the military, just because their… their like, need to support the troops that are coming back.

And so some of that trickles down into civilian, but a lot of that stuff is just so expensive. Um, so I've... I've... I've learned that I have like, the most basic equipment that's functional. And then yeah, I'm constantly breaking it. Like, currently, my leg is like, taped together. Um, I have like sticks shoved in my foot shell because my foot is like so worn down that like my foot shell just jiggles, and it's really annoying.

So I'm constantly being creative and like trying to figure out how... one, how to make my leg function. ‘Cause they're expensive too. And like I'm cheap. I don't like paying for like, new parts all the time. So I would say creativity is an essential element of being an active amputee.

Lisa: Yeah. I mean, we, you and I met at a Roam event and uh... you just, you just shred. And then I was talking to you for so long and then I was like, whoa, you have a prosthetic foot. Like so, so late into the day, I didn't even notice. You know?

Heidi Jo: Right! And that's how it should be!

Lisa: Yeah. And I can imagine that you're just constantly breaking things because you shred really hard.

Heidi Jo: Yeah. And I'm real klutzy, real rough on the equipment. [laughs]

Lisa: Wow. So is... and I don't know, I don't know the answer to this at all. Um, so you already have to deal with like, how women's gear is sometimes poorly made. Does that apply to your prosthetic as well? Like is there women's-specific...

Heidi Jo: Yes.

Lisa: ...aspects to it or, yeah? Really?

Heidi Jo: Yeah. Not necessarily women's specific aspects to it, but I do have to be careful what women's... because women's gear is poorly made. You just nailed it.

Lisa: Yeah.

Heidi Jo: And just in general, small gear is poorly made. Like, I feel like, most generic... like when they design something, like, I'm gonna bring this back to kayaking. If you look at kayaking and they build the first boat, they always build is a medium boat. It's the best boat for the design, right? And then they make a bigger one and a smaller one. Of course, when you shift dimensions, how stuff is going to handle changes. And generally speaking, like, the small stuff just doesn't work very well.

And that's true for, I feel like, a lot of women's stuff, like women's gear seems like it's designed for men first and then modified for women. It's not designed for women first. It's like a women's version of a men- or not even men, but like a gender neutral, like, product, right? And I totally deal with that with my leg all the time. Like, um, my dry suit for kayaking, like, I have to reinforce my, my, the leg, the leg on it, so I don't wear holes in it. Kayaks, like the small ones, I have to be really careful ‘cause my leg, um, can get caught in it and can become really dangerous. So I actually paddle a medium boat and I don't paddle a lot of play boats cause it's scary. Um, but yeah, that's something I totally deal with.

Lisa: Wow. Do you carry like a… like an emergency kit with like duct tape and... it sounds like you have sticks, something, something that, like, how do you... or do you just like, find whatever's around?

Heidi Jo: Oh gosh. You know how I was saying earlier that I learned a valuable lesson about being prepared?

Lisa: Yeah.

Heidi Jo: That was maybe a little bit of a lie because I'm still the most underprepared person out there. Like, I was backpacking in Arizona one day and my foot, like, I was like five miles in and my foot rattled off cause it's like bolted on. And I realized I didn't have the wrench to put it back on. And so like, me and my husband were sitting there for like an hour or trying to go through all of our packs trying to figure out something we could put my foot back on with. Um, I need to do better about that. I should carry an emergency pack. I don't.

Lisa: No, but that's... it's, you speak about this in such a funny way, like I'm enjoying laughing with you because your verbs are hilarious. Like. Yeah, just jiggling and shaking off. I'm just like, what is happening? But that's your life.

Heidi Jo: [laughs] It is. Every day. Something new.

Lisa: Wow. Oh, man. So also on this podcast, we have a word of the month, and so you're in the month where the word is purpose. And so when you hear the word purpose, what, what do you think of?

Heidi Jo: Oh, man. Um, so knowing, knowing I was going to be on this, I've been thinking about this a lot. And I would say that when I think of purpose, I would say that that word is one of maybe the three words that is like my driving force in life.

Lisa: Ooh.

Heidi Jo: I fully believe that whatever I'm doing needs to have a purpose. And maybe I don't know what it is at the time, but I'm always looking for that purpose because what is... what is action without purpose, right? It's just floundering at some point. Um, and I think that for me, like, it's really, it's really important for me to have a purpose behind what I'm doing. Like, I've spent enough of my life and I'm, I'm young, so I have a lot to go, but I've spent enough of my life not really knowing what the purpose of what I was doing was. And just kind of doing it cause I didn't have anything else to do.

But all of those things that I just floundered and did, looking back, like drove me to this place I'm at now that I feel like very fulfilled and I feel like I do have a purpose. And I think that people should strive to find purpose in what they're doing no matter what. Or they should stop doing it, if they can't find that purpose.

Lisa: Yeah. So what, like, what are some of the ways that you find purpose?

Heidi Jo: Um, well, in a couple ways, like, um, I... I now... I teach special education now. Um, and this is my second year doing it. And that's another one, like, that was not my plan. Um, I didn't really have a plan. I knew I wanted to live in White Salmon because the kayaking was really good. And then I was either going to be a plumber or a para at a school, and the para job happened to get ahold of me first. Um, and... but that, like that para job, like, turns out I was pretty good at it and my boss was like, hey, they have this program to try turn like paras into teachers, you should become a part of this program.

And now, like, I went through that program and that was really challenging. And I get to teach kids that... And I, I'm a life skills teachers teacher. So I, I, I work with students that live with, um, very challenging disabilities. Um, ones that like, are pretty life altering. And I, I really do believe that like, me being a part of their lives, being somebody who has grown up, like, with my own challenges, like I can relate to them more than a lot of other people. Um, just, like, my personality where I think I'm most of the time, like a teenager at heart anyway, and I can just like, I generally just don't care like how ridiculous I am and that really like reflects on these kids. And my like personal background of just like, being active and… I feel like my purpose is to teach these kids that they can do it. I mean, they might have to do it a little differently. They might have to adapt. It might take longer. But I, I feel like for me, like that's how I'm finding purpose right now. And talk to me again in five years. Maybe my purpose will be something different, but right now I feel like I'm very fulfilled and it's because I have that purpose.

Lisa: That's amazing.

Heidi Jo: Well, thanks.

Lisa: I love that. Yeah. So do you... are you still a professional athlete in any capacity or are you purely recreational athlete?

Heidi Jo: Purely recreational. I... the professional athlete, like scene, turns out, is not for me. It's very, um... You have to be really into like self promotion and there's just certain boxes you have to be able to check to be successful as a professional athlete that I just don't care about. Like, I don't care how many Instagram followers I have and I'm not trying to plug 12 different companies. And that was just one of the things that was really hard for me, um, when I was, was competing professionally, is… I just, like, to be successful and to make money in that, that's how you have to do it. And that was just not for me.

So I do all the sports now. Um, and, uh, that's something I love. Like when I was snowboarding professionally, like all the other sports I did really took a back seat. Um, and like I said, like snowboarding is something I'm, I'm decent at. Clearly. I like, I made a living doing it, but it's not my passion. Like, I would much rather go mountain biking or kayaking. I mean, I, I retired two years ago, two winters ago, and I have been on my snowboard twice since then. Now, this year I'm going to buy a pass. Like, one of the reasons I haven't been on my snowboard is I've been in school and moving and just financially it hasn't been feasible and I'm really excited to get back out there and do it. But I don't have that same drive that I do for the other sports I do.

Lisa: I think that's really cool that you have redefined your purpose with like, so much optimism and vigor. Like, I'm really impressed by that because a lot of people struggle with like, oh, I am not pursuing a career as an athlete anymore. I don't self identify as an athlete anymore. But it sounds like you skipped that phase.

Heidi Jo: Yeah. Well, I think that a lot of it was, I... for me, ‘cause... like I said, I was in a really unique position because I wasn't trying to be a Paralympic athlete. Um, there's a lot of people that they like, their entire driving, like, life to get to like that point where they're competing at an elite level, they've started when they were five, you know? And that's been the only thing that they have in their life. And their purpose has been to be this athlete. But for me, like, I kind of stumbled... and my purpose was for awhile, like, to be this athlete, but it wasn't before it started. And I... It's not now.

Now, I view myself as a very athletic person. Um, I love to get out and do activities and I like to do them well, but I think that being defined by that, like, athlete mentality was just never for me.

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Lisa: Something I really admire about Heidi's approach to creativity that I think a lot of our listeners will enjoy too, is letting your creative fuel grow and expand with you as you grow and change. And so now I just love how Heidi was focused on snowboarding and now she's kind of letting herself evolve as a human and moving into other sports and focusing on kayaking and bringing her creativity into teaching and just sort of like keeping it, keeping creativity fluid instead of rigid. And it's just so amazing.

Iris: Yeah. She's just, always been able to follow her passions and find a purpose in that, and then as that purpose changes, just follow where it's going.

Lisa: Okay. Back to Heidi.

Lisa: We haven't had this perspective on the podcast yet, and I, I love your ability to just kind of roll with life and do it with a smile. And, um, I mean, it really sounds like you're just like, yeah, okay. So then the Paralympics called, and so I did that. And now, you know, these guys called me back first. So now I teach special ed. [laughs] I mean, it just seems like, I see why you would be good at kayaking cause you're really good at just navigating.

Heidi Jo: Yeah. Thanks. I appreciate that.

Lisa: Like, navigating what life throws at you. Like, I totally see that. Yeah. I see that side of you.

Heidi Jo: Yeah. My lack of ability to plan ahead definitely has forced that skill upon me, I think in hindsight.

Lisa: Man, I think that's awesome. And so like, do you kind of bring that mindset into your work now teaching kids?

Heidi Jo: Oh yeah. And you have to like, so when I first started teaching last year, I would just stress out when I would spend hours and hours making these lesson plans. Because I thought that's what I had to do to be a teacher. I'm like, I have to have these like three page lesson plans for every lesson I'm teaching and I have to follow it and I have to be regimented and I have to get to the end of it and I have to test them on this day or else I'm just not a successful teacher. And then I realized that is not the reality, especially in special education. Like, now, like, I plan out like a week, I figure out the activities and where we want to go and then we just roll with it. And some days we end up just standing up and having a dance party because nobody wants to do any work. And some days my kids crush it and we bust out like 12 different like, assignments that we needed to get done. And... and yeah, like being able to navigate and just like think on my feet, I think is probably one of my most valuable, um, qualities that I bring to the teaching table. Um, and I'm pretty good at like realizing early on that what I'm doing with a student isn't working and modifying it on the spot to make it better and to fit their needs at that moment.

Lisa: Oh, wow. Yeah. Like that adaptability is key, it sounds like.

Heidi Jo: Yeah, it is, but honestly, I think any successful teacher or especially a special education teacher, that's a quality they're going to have. It... I couldn't imagine doing my job if I didn't have that.

Lisa: Are you able to get kids outside and let them be transformed by nature in the way that you were? Like, is that a part of your job now at all?

Heidi Jo: Not yet. I would like it to be. Um, I actually have a friend who is... who's just through her, her work environment, they got some, some money to start a kayaking club for kids that I'm going to help her with. Um, and I would like, I would very, very much like to... I mean that's what I want to do is I want to take these kids out and I want to teach them. Because I do feel like the outdoors is like the great equalizer. Um, I have a mentor who once told me, he said this about ice climbing, but I think it's true for any like outdoor sport is when you go out ice climbing, everybody has to put spikes on their feet and axes in their hands. Um, so everybody has to adapt to climb the ice. And everybody has to adapt to paddle the river, or everybody has to put skis on their feet to go down the mountain, you know? And so just because your skis look different, the person with two feet, or the person that's not in a wheelchair or whatever it is, they had to put the skis on just like you did. And now all of a sudden, like that disability is gone. Um, and I do very, very, very much want to be, be able to do that in my current position, but right now I'm still in like the new teacher, just like staying afloat mode.

Lisa: How cool is that? So I really like what you're saying about the outdoors being the great equalizer. How else, how else have you encountered that?

Heidi Jo: Um, so I, when I... so when I was a kid, I talk about going to, um, on a couple of different levels, actually. So when I was a kid, I talked about going to these, um, these snowboarding camps, right? Uh, with other kids. And... have you ever heard of the concept of like, learned helplessness?

Lisa: Yes.

Heidi Jo: So that's something you see a lot in the, the world of various challenges - and not necessarily disabilities, like mental illness, um, all sorts. Like, learned helplessness is a thing. Like you, you get told once that you can't do something and people, like certain people will believe that. And I, I witnessed this a lot as a kid, um, at the snowboarding camps and, and honestly, like even in the Paralympics, like, some of the adults I encountered, I was like, really? Um, but... so people like, think they can't do something. And then they go and they go out in the outdoors and they do something just as well as somebody who is, who, what I would call somebody who's able-bodied, which is kind of a taboo term nowadays, but somebody who has all their limbs and fully functional. And that, like seeing people like realize that, oh, I can do this! This is awesome! It's super empowering and it's really empowering to watch that and witness that. And um, when I was... when I was an athlete, we used to run a lot of adaptive camps for like military and kids and just people helping getting people out. And I always found those, like, the best moments of what we did because we got to help empower other people to realize to like look beyond the lot that they thought they were given.

Lisa: Wow. That's a, that's big one. That's a, that's a big statement. I think that's amazing. You just, you just came out of the box that way, huh? Being able to be able to see life like that.

Heidi Jo: Well, yeah. I mean, a little bit. Like, my dad is very like, upbeat and you've met my sister, like it... it's definitely a genetic thing. Um, but it's also like a, it's a how I was raised thing. Like, like I said, I was not raised to... I wasn't permitted to use my leg as an excuse. Um, and if I tried to, that just pushed my parents to push me harder. And there were times that I just hated them. And I, I was like, this just sucks. But I always figured it out and I am a much better person because of it.

Lisa: That's so rad. So we have a lot of people who listen to the podcast, who work in marketing in the outdoor industry, and a lot of those people are photographers. And what's, so what's your advice coming from your personal experience, when working with a photographer, if, if the athletes are living with some type of challenge, like what's your advice to photographers who don't encounter that every day?

Heidi Jo: I mean, it's so person dependent. Um, and it depends on like the background of the people they're working with. Like, so for me, I'm an open book. Like there's nothing, you can't ask me that I'm not going to answer brutally honest. Um, and also like, I'm not... I am not comfortable- or I'm not uncomfortable talking about my past and like how I don't have a leg and all this stuff, but that's just me. I would say some of the best advice I could give people is to just be honest with who you're working with.

Like, I mean ask people like, “Hey, are you comfortable, like talking about this?” Like, “Hey, I noticed you're in a wheelchair and this is kind of funky for me. Can we like change that?” Just... like, people that live with whatever disability or especially like physical disability that you can see... like, we know. It's not like I know I don't have a leg. Like, um, and... and, and most people are just going to be honest, be like, actually, you know, I'm not comfortable. Like I don't want to talk about that or I don't really like moving that. But most people will be like, yeah, let's do this. And just like, people are really appreciative of just open and honesty. Like, it sucks to be around somebody who like jumps around the fact that like, I don't have a leg or whatnot. I'm like, I know it's there. We can talk about it. That's, that's offending to me. Yeah. It's like, it feels like an insult on my intelligence almost. Like I... just be open and honest, I guess.

Lisa: Yeah. It's, it's weirder to pretend that... like, it makes it an elephant in the room situation is if you don't talk about it.

Heidi Jo: Yeah, exactly.

Lisa: Especially if it needs to be spoken about. If you're going to ask an athlete to hike something over and over and over again to get the shot.

Heidi Jo: Yeah. Yeah. And they’ll be like, Hmm, I could probably do this like three times. Or something that like, I don't have a problem with, um, because I have, my knee, is people who are like above the knee amputees for example, like. Generally speaking, the knees that they use to do like active sports like snowboarding and mountain biking specifically, they are set up in a way that makes it really hard to walk, actually. Um, but also like, I know some really tough athletes that even though it looks like it's hard to walk and it looks like they're not having fun they're still fine doing it cause they're just tough and they've been doing it their whole lives or they've been doing it long enough, it's just part of it, you know. At some point it's not, it's just part of your life. It's not like an extra hindrance. It's just something you have to deal with. Like. Some people have to deal with wearing glasses.

Lisa: [laughs] You make a casual comparison there, but, um…

Heidi Jo: But it is!

Lisa: I don't know. I like, yeah, I like your ability to, to approach it with a lightheartedness, too. That's really, um, that's really cool. Um, what is like one thing that you want to tell our audience that I haven't asked you about?

Heidi Jo: So this is like some advice to parents with kids. So I, I encounter this a lot, and I'm very forward. So like I always like, approach the kids, but, um, I'll be out in public and, um, I'll have shorts on or whatnot. And I see little kids like, staring at me cause I know they want to know about my leg cause it's different and it's weird, right? And they're probably gonna tell me that, they’re like, that's weird. But I'm fine with that, because kids want to know. What drives me nuts is when you see a parent like take their kid away, and be like, “no, don't ask that.”

Like, “it's not okay to stare.” It's okay to stare if you're a little kid, and it's okay to ask. Like, we're never gonna teach people to be more accepting of people who are different, and that goes for all aspects of life, not just people with disabilities, that people of different races, um, people of different genders, people of different sexualities, like, we're never gonna teach people to be understanding and open if we don't start it at a young age. So you should... parents should like, let their kids question. And every once in a while you're gonna run into somebody who's just going to... it's a kid. Like, somebody might be like, I don't really want to talk about it, but most of the time, like, people appreciate it when, when people open the door to that conversation.

Lisa: That's really, really good advice. Cool. Well, thank you so much for your time and uh, yeah, this was a good episode. Thanks for your words.

Heidi Jo: Yeah, totally. Thanks for having me on. This was awesome.

Iris: Thank you so much, Heidi Jo. We love having you on the show. What an incredible story.

Lisa: It was also a really incredible that time we went downhilling.

Iris: You can find Heidi at the links in our show notes as well as the transcript to the show, and we'd really, really appreciate it if you leave us a rating and review on iTunes. We want to hear what you think about Outside by Design and it helps us get the show to more listeners.

Lisa: Yeah, and also just a giant shout out to our listeners. You guys are awesome. And if this audience is growing a ton lately, so it seems like you're sharing it with your friends. So thanks for doing that. And please stop by the office if you're ever in Whitefish and I'll give you some coffee and a hug.

Iris: We have lots of that going around.

Lisa: Hugs?

Iris: And coffee.

Lisa: and coffee.

Iris: And with that we'll see you next week.

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