How Hunter Woodhall is paving a path at both the Paralympic Games and University of Arkansas
It didn’t take a spot on the U.S. Paralympic track and field team, two medals in Rio, a scholarship to the University of Arkansas or 2.1 million followers on TikTok for Hunter Woodhall to know his worth.
He’s never doubted that.
The 21-year-old from Syracuse, Utah, who in 2017 became the first ever double-amputee track and field athlete to earn a Division I athletic scholarship, must wait a little longer to achieve his goal of getting back to the Paralympic Games. But in the time since the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, the Arkansas junior has found success as a sprinter for the Razorbacks while proving doubters wrong along the way.
“People need to understand this isn’t something I chose,” said Woodhall, who was born with a birth defect that led to the amputation of both legs below the knee. “I didn’t get born and then my parents were like, ‘Hey, let's make a fast kid with no legs; let's cut his legs off and get this process going.’ In my heart I want to be a competitor and an athlete, and this is the only way I can do it.”\
Less than a month ago, Woodhall and his Razorback teammates were within 24 hours of competing at the NCAA indoor track and field championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Scrolling through Twitter, they saw the news about the cancelation of their season due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
"We went to a restaurant, had a big old burger and fries and then got on a plane and headed home,” he said.
While he knows that the cancelation of spring sports and the postponement of the Tokyo Games to 20211 was the right decision, Woodhall, like the rest of the world, is still coming to terms with it all.
“It was pretty surreal and hard to realize for a while that this is happening in the world,” he said.
The Arkansas men’s and women’s track and field teams swept the competition in the SEC indoor championships on Feb. 29 in College Station, Texas. It was the first team championship for the men since 2017.
Those moments are the reason Woodhall, who didn’t take up running and get his first pair of running blades until sixth grade, committed to Arkansas.
Despite being a highly touted runner out of high school – he broke the Utah 400-meter state record – the scholarship offers weren’t there. In part because a double amputee had yet to receive one in the sport at the Division I level, the precedent had yet to be set. Arkansas was willing to take a chance on Woodhall.
“One of my biggest things in the whole process was I needed a team and a university that I felt very strongly that they were there for me as an athlete, and they believed in what I was doing and they were willing to fight for me,” Woodhall said.
After what he called a disappointing freshman season, Woodhall bounced back his sophomore and junior years and is now a three-time All-American in the 4x400-meter. He ran a lifetime-best 46.22 seconds in the 400-meter at the SEC outdoor championships last year.
“SEC is the most competitive track conference in the nation and that’s one of the reasons I went there – especially for sprints. My whole family was there to celebrate it with me, and it was a really special moment,” Woodhall said. “I didn’t think I would ever be running that competitively with that caliber of athletes.”
Already a Paralympian before he was even thinking about college, Woodhall didn’t have to go the college route. But he’s seen the connection of talented runners in the NCAA and the Olympic and Paralympic scene and wanted a piece of the action.
“I think the biggest benefit for an athlete to run in the NCAA rather than go pro right away is the competition,” he said. “I think the NCAA is the most competitive track and field scene anywhere in the world ... I know there is a lot of factors that go into that but at the end of the day if you look at the number of athletes that are competing in the NCAA it's also the people who are winning world championships and Olympics.”
Not only is Woodhall winning on the track, he’s also winning the social media game. His TikTok video explaining how he lost his legs was seen by 5.8 million viewers, including producers of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” In an episode that premiered on Jan. 28, he was invited on to tell his story.
“What an amazing person (DeGeneres) and an amazing experience,” Woodhall said. “There is a little list of mine of top moments of really amazing things that have happened in my life and that is definitely at the top of the list.”
He uses his platform for more than just viral videos. He wants to be that face for other athletes breaking barriers and fighting for a chance to compete.
“Every time I see a kid say, ‘I'm committed to this school and decided I'm going to run here,’ it’s just so cool,” he said. “Just because I happened to be born before them, I would like to think if they were the ones born in 1999 that they would have been the ones paving that path for me.”