Fans looking at the list of athletes included in the 2017 ESPN Body Issue may notice an unfamiliar name: Kirstie Ennis.
But while she may not have the same kind of worldwide name recognition as athletes like Ezekiel Elliott or Isaiah Thomas, Ennis–a former U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant turned amputee snowboarder and rock-climber and marathoner and a whole lot of other things–has a pretty strong claim as the most impressive individual featured in the annual edition of the magazine.
Here’s everything you need to know about her:
1. She Lost Her Left Leg After a Helicopter Crash
The daughter of two Marines, Ennis enlisted out of Florida when she was 17 years old in 2008. She served for six years as a helicopter door gunner and airframes mechanic when disaster struck on June 23, 2012.
While on her second deployment to Afghanistan, Ennis’ helicopter crashed. She suffered a multitude of injuries to her brain, spine, face, shoulders, and in November 2015, doctors had to amputate her leg below the knee. All-in-all, she says she underwent 44 surgeries.
Determined not to be defined by her physical injuries, she has learned the importance of a positive attitude and perseverance.
“One of the things I learned [after the amputation] is that it’s what’s behind your rib cage and the 6 inches between your ears that matters,” she says. “If you have your head and your heart in the right place and go into things laughing and smiling, it’s going to be smooth sailing.”
2. She Became an Above-the-Knee Amputee in December 2015
After her below-the-knee amputation on November 23, 2015, Ennis caught MRSA in the hospital and doctors were forced to remove her knee exactly a month later. As she explained, the second amputation was a much larger setback than the first:
I will never complain about being an amputee — I’m alive, happy, healthy — but I would do damn near anything to have my left knee back. A below-the-knee amputation is night and day from above-the-knee. When I went in to the hospital and they said you’re going to be above-the-knee now, I lost it. I snapped. I screamed. I made a fool of myself in the hospital.
As a below-the-knee amputee, you don’t have to relearn much. As an above-the-knee amputee, you’re a toddler. I was trying to find my niche in sports.
But while it was discouraging at first, Ennis hasn’t let it stop her from chasing an incredibly lofty list of goals.
3. She’s a 2018 Paralympic Games Hopeful
Chief among that list of goals is the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in March. Ennis, who hadn’t snowboarded before her injury, took it up and quickly enjoyed immense success, winning the 2015 USASA National Championship.
As of June 2017, she ranks 12th in the Para Snowboard world rankings.
4. She’s Attempting to Complete the Seven Summits
In addition to snowboarding and completing marathons and Iron Mans and pretty much any other ridiculous athletic achievement that you can think of, Ennis has her sights on summiting the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents. In March, she became the first above-the-knee amputee to ever top Mount Kilimanjaro, and she has plans for Mount Everest Base Camp in October and the Denali summit in May of 2018.
“It is unheard of for amputees, especially above the knees to want to take on mountains, especially the highest in the world,” she says. “My passion is the outdoors and there is no other feeling like standing on top of a mountain taking in the world around you.”
Perhaps Ennis’ most ambitious goal? Reaching the top of Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia, a 16,000-foot rock face that has only been attempted by one other above-the-knee amputee, who had to be pulled off after 500 feet.
“That’s my mountain,” says Ennis.
5. She Walked 1,000 Miles Across Britain
As part of a Walking With the Wounded charity event in 2015, Ennis made a 1,000-mile trek across Britain, during which she honored 25 fallen soldiers by laying down a dog tag every 40 miles. She was also joined by Prince Harry during certain segments.
“Prince Harry told me his knee hurt, and I looked over and was like, ‘That’s f—ing cute. Really?'” she recalled. “I used to roll my eyes and be like, ‘You have no idea.’ But now I look at people and I’m happy they’re feeling what they’re feeling because it’s making them tougher. I like seeing people grow, and in order to have growth, you have to be uncomfortable.”