Game on

Hannah Pennington has never let her disability slow her down — in life or in the Olympics.

By Tom Wilmes

Publish Date: February 17, 2015

No matter how lofty the goal, Hannah Pennington (B.S. biology ’14) finds a way to get it done.

Climb Mt. Kilimanjaro? Become a world-class ski racer and compete in three Winter Olympics? Master an entirely different sport and train for the 2016 Olympic Games? Done, done and done.

“There are two consistent things in my life: medical stuff and sports,” Pennington said. “And I don’t give up on either.”

Pennington, 36, was born with Spastic Diplegia Cerebral Palsy, a congenital condition that tightens her muscles and greatly limits her range of motion, making balance difficult. Not that she’s ever let that get in her way.

She grew up in Northglenn, Colorado, and started skiing at age 6 through a program offered by Children’s Hospital Colorado.

“My parents never felt sorry for me or let me be sad about being disabled,” Pennington said. “They just picked me up when I fell, brushed me off and sent me back on my way.”

“She’s positive about everything and because of that, everything is within reach, no matter the circumstances or challenges,” said Pennington’s longtime friend Tanida Ruampant, associate director of communications and outreach for MSU Denver’s Alumni Association.

Pennington joined the ski team while attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and started racing. Her coach recognized her potential and connected her with a member of the U.S. Women’s Disabled Ski Team, who mentored and coached Pennington.

After putting her studies on hold to focus on her training, Pennington made the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team and competed in the 2002 Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City. She raced in the 2006 Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy, and again in the 2010 Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“The biggest part of skiing for me was feeling normal — better than normal — because I was just as good or better than everybody else,” Pennington said. “Being able to represent my country as an athlete is incredibly rewarding. It’s been really nice to find the things that I can succeed at.”

But elite ski racing and years of intense training is a lot to ask of any body, especially Pennington’s. She had hip surgery about a year before the Vancouver games and temporarily lost function in her legs due to a virus that attacked her spine. She didn’t know if she would walk again, much less race.

“But when I got back on snow, I was really surprised that my muscle memory took over, despite my lack of strength. My body knew what do,” she said. “I ended up having the best season that I’d had in years.”

She retired from racing after Vancouver and set her sights on her next goal: finishing her degree. Pennington enrolled at MSU Denver and commuted from her home in Winter Park to attend classes. She graduated in May 2014.

“I honestly learned more in the two years of finishing my degree at MSU Denver than I did at any other time,” she said. “I think it’s because of how MSU Denver is structured, not to mention the mentality of the professors. They’re awesome.”

She’s currently researching graduate programs and hopes to become an ultrasound technician. True to form, she has also taken up a new sport — paddling — and is training to compete in Paracanoe at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

“I like having goals, both toward my career in medicine and as an athlete,” Pennington said. “It motivates me to be better.”