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Paralympian Brittani Coury unstraps snowboard to join frontline fight against coronavirus

John Livingston, Durango Herald
Brittani Coury, who grew up in Aztec and graduated from Farmington High School, won a silver medal at the 2018 Winter Paralympic games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Coury is now prioritizing her job as a registered nurse to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Standing in the start gate before a boarder cross race, Brittani Coury feels a rush of adrenaline. Stepping into University of Utah Health for a 12-hour nursing shift during the global coronavirus pandemic, she feels a completely different level of focus. 

Coury, a former clinical supervisor at Mercy Regional Medical Center in Durango, stopped working in the healthcare profession after she was named to the U.S. Paralympic snowboard team before the 2018 Parlaympic Games in South Korea.

Coury, 34, won a silver medal in banked slalom at the 2018 Paralympic Games in the lower-limb 2 category.

The registered nurse focused on snowboard racing full time after the 2018 Olympics. But when the new coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in March, she unstrapped her snowboard and jumped back into scrubs to help nurse at University of Utah Health.

She completed her onboarding process and started on the internal medicine floor on April 6 and has worked 13 1/2-hour night shifts.

“I was in Norway and ready to finish up World Cup season when the outbreak hit,” Coury said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “I had just raced a banked slalom and got a bronze medal. That night, we were told we were leaving the next day to try to make it back to the U.S. before March 13. I shifted gears right away to get back into nursing to do my part to help out in this fight.

“Our floor is jam-packed with a lot of patients right now because they are trying to keep the (intensive care unit) open and available. When you’re nursing, you hit the ground running and don’t stop for 12 hours or more.”

Coury had her lower right leg amputated below the knee in 2011 after a broken ankle injury suffered while snowboarding in 2003 as a 17-year-old continued to cause pain after a total of eight surgeries.

Originally from Aztec and a graduate of Farmington High School, Coury moved to Durango at 18 and eventually became a registered nurse.

She was inspired by the healthcare professionals who had always made her feel comfortable during years of pain and recovery. She became an emergency medical technician in 2011 and eventually earned her nursing degree in 2016.

That same year, Coury had spent only 12 days back on a snowboard when she decided to enter a Dew Tour event in Breckenridge, Colorado, for her first adaptive banked slalom race.

By 2017, Coury had performed well enough to earn a spot on the U.S. Ski & Snowboard team. After winning her silver medal in 2018, Coury moved to Salt Lake City to train full time.

"I was feeling it. I was in a good mental space for boardercross. But you have to roll with the punches when it comes to sports," Coury said. "Human life is way more important than any sporting event. Coming home to help save others, I was not upset by that.” 

In the midst of another standout season of racing, Coury didn’t expect to put her snowboard away and jump back into the frontlines of a public health crisis in the fight against COVID-19.

But, as an adaptive sports athlete, Coury said she is ready to adapt to any situation presented.

“Walking onto the nursing floor, I am hoping to give the best patient care and make somebody’s bad day a little bit better,” she said. “I know what it is like being a patient and sitting in a hospital bed. Snowboarding and nursing, it’s the same mindset, and I am competitive with myself to reach goals and make sure I can get my patients what they need before they have to ask for it. It’s all about being able to adjust on the fly. But in snowboarding, I am focused on one thing and can get into a zone. With nursing, I have to think about 500 things and trying to stay ahead and prevent problems from happening.”

Coury said she tries not to look at numbers when it comes to COVID-19, especially in terms of new confirmed cases. When she sees a sharp rise in confirmed cases, she knows that is because of increased testing.

Utah has only 19 reported deaths because of coronavirus, and Coury was immediately encouraged by Utah’s handling of the pandemic.

Seeing patients unable to visit with family members, though, is what makes Coury’s heart hurt every day.

"It makes me sad that my patients are lonely. Knowing that, I am trying to be that person who is there for them, to talk with them and try to ease their discomfort," Coury said. "Anything to make their day more enjoyable, no matter how busy I am, I will fit that into my day.”

With a good snowpack in Utah, Coury had envisioned training into June.

Coury had envisioned representing the United States in the 2021 World Para Snow Sports Championships in Norway.

Now, her snowboard will sit idle while she wears a mask and scrubs to work for the foreseeable future.

When the time comes, Coury will be ready to get back to snowboarding, just not right now.

“This is an unfortunate situation, but it is something that can unify us much like sports or the Olympics can do," Coury said. "We are all in this together. My hope is we can unite globally and do something for the better. We are all humans at the end of the day, and we all suffer from the same virus. Maybe we can set differences aside and unite together as a world.”

Durango Herald Regional Sports Editor John Livingston can be reached via email at jlivingston@durangoherald.com and on Twitter at @jlivi2.

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