Strike A Pose

Brenna Huckaby for the Sports Illustrated Legends photo shoot
Yu Tsai/Sports Illustrated

Paralympian Brenna Huckaby & Mom Of Two Honored As “Legend” In SI Swimsuit Issue

The gold-medalist snowboarder says she channeled the confidence of every model who’s come after her.

Brenna Huckaby, a Paralympian snowboarder, first appeared in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit in 2018. Looking at the photos, she exudes playful confidence with her chic bathing suits, purple hair, and prosthetic leg. But on her side of the camera, things felt different. “I had no experience and no confidence, and it was just a lot,” she tells Romper. “I was doing it for other people — for my community, the disabled community.”

Over the years, however, things have changed. Huckaby doubled her number of children (little sister Sloan, now 4, joined big sister Lilah, 8) and Paralympic medals (gold for banked slalom and bronze snowboard cross at the 2022 Beijing Paralympic Games). And now in honor of the 60th anniversary of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, she’s back in the magazine. This time, for SI’s “Legends shoot,” which includes cover models Gayle King, Hunter McGrady, Chrissy Teigen, and Kate Upton as well as Brooklyn Decker, Christie Brinkley, Danielle Herrington, Megan Rapinoe, Paulina Porizkova, and Tyra Banks among other.

“Since [my first shoot], I’ve grown into confidence for myself,” she explains. “So I feel like it’s still for my community, of course, but also there’s this piece of, ‘Yay! Let me show the growth and the confidence and the self-assurance that I’ve gained in myself now.’”

Huckaby, who had her right leg amputated as a young teenager following a bone cancer diagnosis, still can’t believe she’s part of this iconic issue. It wasn’t too long ago that the models in the issue were, while never homogenous, fit a more narrow beauty standard. In 2016, Ashley Graham became the issue’s first so-called “plus-sized” model. Since then SI has made a concerted and successful effort in expanding its aesthetic (last year’s cover model was octogenarian Martha Stewart, who was also included in the Legends shoot) while maintaining the same air of glamour and sex appeal.

“Over the past 60 years we have shattered stereotypes, embraced diversity, and championed inclusivity,” MJ Day, Editor in Chief of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, said in a press release. “With each passing year, we have challenged ourselves to push boundaries and redefine what it means to be Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. While this year’s issue is a tribute to the recent past, it’s also a reminder of the work we must continue to do. We must remind women to challenge the status quo, to celebrate strength and confidence, and to inspire those around us to embrace their uniqueness and pursue their passions fearlessly.”

Huckaby believes social media has had an important hand in this shift. “Once we all had access to writing our own stories or sharing what we value, we basically got to start writing the definition of beauty, and we got to start setting those standards,” she says. “And brands were either going to sink or swim.”

Courtesy of Sports Illustrated

Fortunately, swimming (or at least swimsuits) are part of SI’s whole vibe. Of course, it’s impossible for any company, let alone one annual issue, to represent the infinite spectrum of beauty all at once. But Huckaby is delighted with the efforts she’s seen from the brand so far. “The disability community is so huge that it’s probably impossible in 10 years to represent in one media outlet the vast array of different disabilities,” she says. “But just by one showing up, it’s a massive ripple effect. Just from Sports Illustrated Swimsuit in 2018 to today. It’s growing. It’s still not where it needs to be, but it’s growing.”

Huckaby says that her relationship with her own body is a work in progress. While she currently encourages folks to “wear the shorts” and is sure to show her prosthetic out on the slopes, when she first started snowboarding she enjoyed the ability to hide her prosthetic. It was the one area of her life, she says, where she could “step away” from her disability: swerving along in her board, wearing snow pants, nobody could tell she only had one leg. “I just felt like at a time in my life I needed that, I needed to get away from the disability, mostly because I hadn’t fully accepted my body and my future with my body as it was,” she says. “I just weirdly held onto this hope that it wasn’t always going to be this way.”

Over time, she’s done a lot of work on accepting her body as it is: the positives, the negatives, and the acknowledgement of the unique and necessary care it requires. “When I really started to accept that and find love for myself, regardless of the limitations that I do have, that’s when I started to feel empowered by my body and not hide it,” she explains. “There was definitely a time and a place in my life where I needed to tell myself, ‘I love this part of my body. I love this part of my body.’ But now, there’s no need. Now it’s this weird, grounded love.”

She’s aided in that grounded love by her two daughters. Prior to her amputation, she was worried about what motherhood might look like for her one day. Would she be able to keep up with her kids? Would she be able to give them the fullest life possible? Would they be embarrassed by her visible disability?

“It was just internalized ableism,” she recalls. “Once I did have my daughter, just like everything in life, you adapt. You figure out what works. Nothing in life is a one size fits all, one leg or not. And so I slowly started to take confidence in that.”

As the girls got older, Huckaby realized that not only was her disability not something that bothered them, but something they appreciated about her. “They’re so proud of the fact that their mom’s different, their mom has one leg. No one else’s mom has one leg!” she laughs. “It’s just so funny. I never would’ve expected that.”

Summer is a quieter time of year for Huckaby. Or at least as quiet as it can be with an 8 and 4-year-old. Her last competition of the 2023-2024 season was last month and she won’t start up again until late-summer or early- fall. “[Off-season] looks like hanging out with my family, reconnecting. I’m in the gym every day and on a mountain bike when I can, but it really is just avoiding burnout, really taking care of myself,” she says. “I’m learning that taking care of myself doesn’t look like a hot bath or a skincare routine. Not anymore. For me, taking care of myself sometimes sucks.”

“Waking up early and listening to something positive that’s going to give me an intention for the day,” she adds. “Journaling and maybe doing a quick meditation because that centeredness and that presence is the only thing that helps me survive throughout my day. Especially as a mom: how I react to [my kids] is how they’ve lived their childhood, and I want to be the best for them.”

And, of course, she can look forward to seeing herself in the 60th Anniversary SI swimsuit issue. No doubt her girls can be proud to see their mom posing among all the other “legends” who’ve come out of the past six decades of this iconic brand. And this time, unlike to wavering, shaky confidence of the last time she posed, she has the benefit of her own growth, but she can draw from the women who have come after as well.

“I felt like I had all the other women that have done modeling with a disability now, since the 2018 shoot, I felt like I had little bits of their confidence in me,” she says. “So many other women after me have come out and showed up and are stunning and gorgeous, and it’s like I wanted to represent that in this issue.”

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue will be available on newsstands May 17. Exclusive content from this year’s issue will be available across all Sports Illustrated Swimsuit social and digital channels — @si_swimsuit — starting May 14.