The Team USA feature begins here:
You never know what a post on social media will lead to.
For Rebecca Johnston, a photo of her snowboarding on Instagram led to an interaction with two-time Paralympic medalist Noah Elliott.
“Noah found me on social media,” said Johnston, a newly trained Para snowboarder from Hood River, Oregon, who hopes to compete internationally for the first time this winter. “I think I had posted a photo of (my) very first time at Timberline (Lodge in Mount Hood) with my BioDapt knee.”
Elliott commented on the photo, beginning a consequential Instagram conversation. “If you want to pursue snowboarding,” Elliott told Johnston, “you should really go for it.”
Johnston, an above-the-knee amputee, went for it. She took more trips to the mountain and wound up meeting Elliott in person in July 2021 during a training session not far from her home in Oregon with Mike Jennings, a U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding coach.
Johnston is a former volleyball player at Division III Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and a 2022 college graduate. Now, she’s headed toward the international stage in snowboarding once she is classified by the International Paralympic Committee.
The transition started in 2017, a few weeks into her freshman year, when Johnston was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, at age 18. Johnston underwent limb salvage surgery but eventually opted for an amputation.
“I started snowboarding more and more,” Johnston said. “I remember how much I really liked it. I was pretty good at it, too. I was like, ‘Wow, snowboarding makes me really happy. I don’t think volleyball is in the cards for me anymore.’”
Until that moment, Johnston was a recent amputee looking for a new direction.
“I was also doing some other adaptive sports here and there, so I was able to meet a lot of amputees,” Johnston said. “A lot of free time to do my own research and everything. So I felt really prepared to make that decision. Honestly, couldn’t be happier because here I am, snowboarding.”
Johnston lives in Hood River, Oregon, which is about an hour drive from Timberline Lodge’s snowboarding facility, located on the south side of Mount Hood. She trains there. Jennings coaches there. The two first met there last summer.
She was extremely green,” Jennings said. “It was one of her first times on her snowboard after her injury.”
"When he saw me in the summer,” Johnston said, “I hadn’t really gotten my prosthetic leg set up to where it needed to be.”
She didn’t stay “green” for long. “I built a lot of great foundations with Mike over the summer last year and over this winter I got about 50 days on the mountain myself, just getting out there and putting miles under my board and getting comfortable,” she said. “Trying to implement a lot of the things that I learned when I worked with Mike.”
When it came time for a development camp at Mount Hood this June — where Johnston was among five women who participated, one of which was three-time Paralympic gold medalist Brenna Huckaby — Jennings saw a different person.
“Wow, did she come a long way during the normal season,” he said. “When we last rode together, she was just basically getting the fundamental information of how to manipulate the board, how to communicate with it, what you’d like it to do. Her level of stability and confidence in her body position and movements this year drops my jaw.”
A few weeks after the camp was over, Johnston made the trip over to Mount Hood for more training sessions with Jennings.
“That was a blast,” she said. “Kind of got some training in, like learning how to ride switch with my prosthetic leg forward, which I wasn’t quite used to. We’re hitting on some of the more high-level technical movements.”
But she still hasn’t raced. Not yet.
“I’m super excited,” Johnston said. “Pretty much what I’ve been doing has been just technical stuff, as far as snowboarding in general. But I’ve never gate trained. I’ve never been through a banked slalom or a boardercross track. I’m kind of excited for the day when I can try that out.”
That day may not be far off, pending a classification that is likely to happen in November.
“She’s ready for the next step,” Jennings said. “She took the information and ran with it and went out and applied it. It shows. She’s a totally different rider, very stable.”
Johnston’s path toward the mountain created a significant change for her and her family. Johnston had played volleyball since she was young and was an all-conference libero at Hood River High School.
“Everybody’s been super supportive,” Johnston said. “They’re really kind of proud of me and happy to hear that I have this big goal of going to the Paralympics in four years. The sport of snowboarding is new to my parents, especially because I played volleyball since I was 9 years old up until this point. It’s been kind of a different world for them, learning about how everything is going to work.”