Written by Andy Rhinehart

Blazing a new trail Polk County's Hanna O'Brien set to run into history at state indoor track meet

Blazing a new trail Polk County's Hanna O'Brien by Andy Rhinehart

Hanna O’Brien has never been one to listen to the doubters.

Never been one to worry about those who couldn’t look past her prosthetic leg and see the determination and drive. Never been one to give the naysayers claiming to act in her best interests a second thought.

A chance is all Hanna ever wanted.

When she first set foot on the campus of Polk County High School, she decided to make one.

“I got to high school and I was like, I’m tired of riding the bench,” O’Brien said. “I want to show you what I’m capable of and be a starter on the team.

“From then on, I’ve learned just to prove that I’m capable of doing things.”


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Doing things out of the spotlight is Hanna O’Brien’s preference. Achieve, but achieve quietly, is how O’Brien approaches every day.

All of which merely adds to the emotions that O’Brien expects to experience on February 13, when she will step to the starting line at the JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem and race into the record books. O’Brien will become the first female athlete to compete in an adaptive/amputee event at the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s state indoor track meet, having qualified for the championships in the 55-meter dash.

Granted, adaptive/amputee events are a fairly recent addition to the state meet. But someone has to be the first to compete in one. O’Brien will be that someone.

“I’m really competitive, so if someone hasn’t done something, I want to be the first to do it,” O’Brien said. “But the whole spotlight thing, I could care less about.

“It kind of blows my mind that I am the first one. It’s crazy to think that I’m the first one, but then again, I’m not one to like attention. So half of me is like, oh, this is really cool and I can inspire people and people will look up to me. . . but then the other half of me doesn’t even really care, I’m just doing it for the love of the sport.”

Hanna O'Brien runs the 55-meter dash during a recent meet at JDL Fast Track in Winston-Salem.

A congenital amputee, O’Brien was born with a left leg that extends just below her kneecap and is also missing fingers on both hands. None of that has slowed her a bit – O’Brien rides motorcycles, plays soccer and does nearly anything she can outdoors. “Even I have to do schoolwork and be outside, that would make it better,” she said.

But save for a season spent on the Polk County Middle School cross country team, a quest O’Brien admits merely served as training time for soccer, she hadn’t given thought to joining Polk County’s indoor track team until assistant coach Jenny Wolfe suggested it (of course, Wolfe suggests to nearly everyone she meets that they should run track. But that’s another story).

“She competed for us in middle school cross country,” Wolfe said. “Her determination was amazing. But it crossed my mind this year because she and my son Jacob had an online class together. I kept seeing her every day and kept thinking about asking her to run.

“There are three adaptive events at the state meet, the 55, the 300 and the long jump. Hanna could qualify for all of them. I think she has the heart and determination to do it.”

“Actually, I’m not a big runner,” O’Brien admits. “The whole reason I ran cross country was to stay in shape for soccer, because soccer is my thing. Long distance, I don’t really like it. I’d rather sprint.

“This year, Wolfe texted me and asked me if I wanted to be part of the track team because there’s an adaptive/amputee division and she was like, hey, I know you can beat this time. Let’s see what you can do. I said OK, if it means I get to go to state then I’ll try it.”

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Hanna O'Brien at JDL
Hanna O'Brien competes for the first time at JDL Fast Track in a December meet.

Amanda Simoncic

It didn’t take long for O’Brien to qualify for the state meet at 55 meters. She made her first attempt at qualifying in the 300-meter run in Wednesday’s WNC Polar Bear Championships meet at Polk County and missed the standard by about three seconds. She’ll likely make another attempt at the race before the state meet.

“I think she has done well,” said Polk County head track coach Alan Peoples. “She has a lot of guts and heart.”

Fate also made an important contribution. O’Brien received her first prosthetic before her first birthday, but doctors were never able to find or fashion one that fit comfortably throughout her early years. That changed in 2006 when O’Brien’s mother, Dee, was invited to speak at an amputee conference in Atlanta. During the speech, Dee O’Brien noted the family’s struggles to find a prosthetic that Hanna could wear without issue. After the speech, salvation arrived in the form of Stan Patterson of Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates in Orlando, Fla.

“He walked up to me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘I can help your daughter.’ He told us to get Hanna to Orlando and he would help her,” O’Brien recalled.

POA fit Hanna with a new, comfortable prosthetic, after which “Hanna never missed a beat. She was able to play soccer and able to run,” Dee O’Brien said. “Hanna is a natural athlete. That we’ve always known.”

And now the North Carolina high school track community will know as well.

“You can’t just be an amputee and it all be fine,” Hanna said. “There’s got to be people who tell you, hey, you can’t do this or hey, let’s not try this or you might get hurt. And I’m like, man, you just said that and now I’ve got to prove I can do it.

“Now I think people respect me to the point that they know if they try to tell me something, I would just try to go one step further and prove them wrong.”

And, sometimes, step into history in the process.