Despite paralyzed arm, Kiana Clay aspires to break ground as an athlete
A dozen years ago, when Kiana Clay was left with a paralyzed right arm after not one, but two freak accidents, her then 12-year-old mind focused on life’s little things.
At an age when, like any other young girl, she began to have school crushes, Clay thought, “How am I going to put on makeup? How am I supposed to do my hair? And one day, if I have a child, how am I going to be a mom with one arm?”
That was 12 years ago. Twelve years later, the 24-year-old Clay, now a resident of Dillon, is focused on a different set of questions:
“Despite my disability, how can I compete in snow biking?”
“What will it take to podium in adaptive snowboarding at the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing?”
“Should I amputate my right arm below the elbow to make my life and athletics career easier?”
Clay’s life, from then to now, has been one full of the kinds of challenges and questions most don’t have to ponder. But at each turn, whether on a snowboard, surfboard or dirt bike, Clay works to find the answers to keep her moving forward.
This Wednesday, Clay will join her Copper Mountain Resort-based Adaptive Action Sports teammates at a parasnowboarding World Cup event in the Pyrenees Mountains in La Molina, Spain. There, Clay will compete in banked slalom. It’ll be her second World Cup event of her career as she’s now focused her athletic attention on becoming the first U.S. woman with an upper-limb disability to represent the red, white and blue in snowboarding at the Paralympics.
Snowboarding and Summit County are only two of the latest chapters in Clay’s adaptive athletic journey that touches four different sports and three different home states. At the age of 7, while she lived in Corona, California, Clay fell in love with motocross racing the first time her father Roger put her on a dirt bike.
“Right when I sat on that thing and felt the throttle I was hooked,” she said.
Five years later after that moment, though, Clay’s life journey changed course when she nearly died twice over the course of a few months.
Clay raced religiously from age 9 onward, until the tragic night of Nov. 18, 2006. At that point, her and her family had relocated to Texas to help her sky-high dirt-biking aspirations. That night, Clay struggled with the muddy conditions. Her bike, 20 pounds heavier caked in wet dirt, slipped on the course’s final landing. Moments later, a friend who hadn’t seen the fall, landed on top of Clay’s neck.
The accident, along with knocking Clay unconscious for seven minutes, severed most all of the nerves that helped to control her right arm.
“I woke up,” Clay said, “tried moving everything — fingers, toes — just making sure everything was working properly. Then I realized I couldn’t move my arm, and I started screaming, ‘I can’t move my arm! I can’t move my arm!’ As anybody would, I just started freaking out.”
Clay was sent to three different hospitals in the area before she was properly diagnosed with brachial plexus at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas. After a six-month stint in the hospital, Clay was somewhat hopeful she’d regain the use of her right arm, as she’d noticed some progression in building muscle back in her right bicep. But shortly after departing the hospital, the second accident occurred when a drunk driver clipped the back tire of Clay’s father’s car, causing the vehicle to flip three times. The accident further damaged Clay’s condition to the point where doctors informed her she’d never be able to use her right arm again.
It was then when Clay pondered those questions as to how she’d accomplish life’s most common tasks. But she soon found answers, even if they were for small things like learning how to play Guitar Hero again. These days, Clay can play the video game at expert level with just her feet. As for tying her hair, she’s learned to use a door knob. Tying her shoes? It may take an extra minute, but using her mouth gets the job done.
“So there’s things that I have figured out how to do,” Clay said, “but there are still things till this day I can’t do.”
Back on the bike
Those things include taking out the trash or sealing Ziploc bags, which Clay referred to as her “worst nightmare.”
Despite the paralyzed arm and some of the continued difficulties that came with it, Clay found her way back to motocross riding six years ago when she turned 18. Officially an adult, Clay and a friend down in Texas altered the mechanics of a small pit bike to enable her to get the feel of riding with one arm. Just like 11 years prior, she was hooked to the adrenaline rush of it all.
It wasn’t until about a month later, when Facebook photos of her riding again went viral in the local motocross community, when Clay broke the news to her parents. The initial deal she made with them was that her father would help her to find and finance a smaller bike that would fit her frame and fragility. But competitions, those were out of the question. At the time, Clay and her father figured out a bike setup with an altered throttle and clutch and a steering stabilizer. Clay said she was able to learn and succeed on a dirt bike again by using her knees, thighs and core strength to control the bike, squeezing so tight that her bike’s side panels by the gas tank are perpetually bent inward.
Not soon after returning to the bike, though, Clay convinced her father to let her race again. At her first race, she didn’t finish in last and she didn’t get injured, so she considered it a success. In the years since, Clay has competed against both able-bodied women and adaptive men, including at a Motor Sport Adaptive Race in 2015 when, as the first female to ever compete in the race, she took third place in the upper-limb division.
Snowboarding, surfing and snow biking
It was at that 2015 race where Clay met one of the United States’ greatest adaptive athletes ever, Mike Schultz. He told her about Adaptive Action Sports. The idea of following in a similar Paralympic path to Schultz was especially intriguing to Clay as, before her injury, she had snowboarded since the age of 4. Over the following three winters, Clay spent some time in Summit County getting started with Adaptive Action Sports. Then, last March, she podiumed at the United States of America Freeski and Snowboard Association Nationals at Copper Mountain. Her success came just two months after Clay relocated to Dillon, working three local jobs to help pay for her athletic expenses.
Over the summer, Clay learned how to wake surf back in Texas, a move that now has her pondering adaptive surfing events as well. And, in a perfect world, Clay would like to not only snowboard, but snow bike as well. Considering her mutual passion for dirt bike riding and snowsports, why not?
If there is one final important question Clay is pondering these days, it’s what to do with her arm. She’s leaning toward amputating it beneath the elbow this summer. The decision would enable her to not only shed some of the dead weight she lives with everyday, but to also wear a prosthetic that would make her life more efficient.
The prosthetic could also help her to make the kind of heavy powder turns on a snow bike similar to maneuvering a dirt bike on a sand track. If she were to snow bike, it’d be the latest trailblazing move for Clay as the first female adaptive competitor in that field as well.
“And it’d only be against men,” Clay said, “which I’m pretty used to at this point.”