Hunter Woodhall on Overcoming Bullying to Find Success as a Paralympian: I 'Fell in Love' with Track
After doctors told Hunter Woodhall's family that he would never be able to walk, he proved them wrong — by learning to run.
Due to a birth defect, Woodhall, 22, had both of his legs amputated as a child. Now, Woodhall is a Paralympic medalist in track and field, training for the Tokyo Games, and turning pro.
Though Woodhall is a four-time world medalist, the path to success was not a painless one for the sprinter. After being homeschooled through the first half of elementary school, Woodhall enrolled in public school in the fifth grade and faced bullying from other kids because of his disability.
"That was a really tough time for me," Woodhall tells PEOPLE. "Through those years, I really didn't talk to anybody about it and didn't tell my parents or my family. I kind of just kept it to myself. There wasn't much navigation at all through those years, it was just me dealing with it and trying to get through, day by day."
Once Woodhall got to junior high, he says that he made a few close friends that treated him "like a normal kid." Those friends were on the track team and encouraged Woodhall to join. That, he says, is when everything changed and he found community and a new passion. "It had such a large impact on me because the previous 700 days in my life had just been me thinking I was worthless," recounts Woodhall.
Woodhall says that he wasn't exactly a natural in track at first, but the unwavering support of his parents helped push him.
"At the time we were not in a great place financially," says Woodhall. "[My parents] would even make sure that we're putting aside money to get me and my brother in with a trainer to help us get better. And this is when I was garbage at sports, like I had no promise of what I was doing. But they knew I loved it so they would sacrifice and put themselves in an uncomfortable position to make sure we had what we needed."
Eventually, Woodhall — who runs with prosthetic blades — reached the Paralympics. But still, as he entered high school signing season, no university extended a track scholarship for him to run at the collegiate level.
Many schools viewed Woodhall as too much of an "unknown" based on hesitancy around how they would train an athlete with disabilities, and the NCAA only has minimal men's track and field scholarships available every year.
"I was on top of everything and then very quickly it just kind of crashed," says Woodhall. "I felt powerless, because it was nothing that I could control. It was nothing that I had done. It was one of those circumstances that was, " 'That's just the way it is.' "
Running out of time and options, Woodhall looked to his former coach Tracy Sundlun for help. Sundlun helped the young runner further prove that he could compete at the collegiate level by having him participate in a New Balance indoor track meet. Woodhall was noticed by a few schools, eventually signing with the University of Arkansas, and becoming the first double amputee to receive a Division 1 scholarship in track and field.
"I'm very thankful that I'm the first one and I feel very blessed to be in that position," says Woodhall. "Besides wanting to compete in the NCAA, it was also opening that door and making that process easier for the next. So the hope would be now anybody who wants to make that step and follow that same path has the ability too and doesn't have to go through all the same hoops that I did."
After running at the University of Arkansas for three years, and becoming a four-time NCAA All-American during his time there, Woodhall is now foregoing his last year of track at the university to become a professional athlete.
Woodhall says that although a large reason he is foregoing his NCAA eligibility is because of training for the rescheduled Paralympics, he also was put in a difficult position due to the NCAA's rules on image and likeness. The organization and Woodhall butted heads over his large following on social media (over 2 million — and counting — on TikTok) and his side business, Giant Hoodies.
"If I wanted to continue competing in the NCAA I had to pay back a large sum of money to reimburse for the money I've made from my company and the money I've made on social media," says Woodhall. "I had to scrub every single one of my social media of any posts I had ever made of anything of me running, anything of me being in college, anything of me being a student-athlete ... it was just too much."
While Woodhall is now carving a new path for himself, he continues to use his platform to make a difference. On TikTok and Instagram, the track and social media star creates content to normalize conversations about his disability through humor.
"I think like one of the biggest things that I've learned, whether it's through physical disability, whether it's a disability you can't see, whether it's like social justice, race, any of these things, one of the biggest ways to like help and educate people is having conversations," Woodhall tells PEOPLE.
He also feels that the best part of creating these conversations online is the relationships and connections he's made with others.
"The most rewarding part is having people reach out to me and say, 'Hey, the things you're doing have really impacted me in a positive way.' And, 'I started running track because of you' or 'I started wearing shorts, and I show off my prosthetics because of you.' Those things are really good and I wish I had that when I was a kid — somebody who showed it's okay to be different."
To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer on NBC.
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