BOZEMAN — While it just felt like yesterday that the Summer Olympics wrapped up in Tokyo, we’re now just weeks away from the winter games kicking off in Beijing.
Eighteen-year-old Lera Doederlein, a Bozeman-based athlete, is on the brink of becoming one of Team USA’s youngest Paralympians in an event she didn’t even know existed a couple of years ago - Para-nordic skiing.
“It was the scariest decision I’ve ever made, and I didn’t think it would be scary until the moment I got to that surgery I was just like am I really going to do this?" Doederlein asked herself back in June 2017.
At the age of 14, Doederlein made a decision no teenager should ever be expected to make, but she knew if there was any chance at playing sports in the future a bilateral amputation was the only answer.
“In the back of my mind I was scared, but I knew that I wanted a better life, more independence, more opportunity for my future, so I just knew that I had to do it," She explained.
Doederlein was born with a birth defect in both of her legs and hips called arthrogryposis.
“It basically - like my bones and muscles weren’t able to form in the correct way, so I grew up with bent legs and bowed legs and curled feet, and I was given up for adoption right away."
She was born in the small Russian town of Saratov.
"They didn't have a lot of ability to take care of somebody with such complex medical disabilities, so two years after I was born I was adopted from a family in the US, and I was basically put into braces as soon as they figured out I could walk after a few surgeries," Doederlein said.
But as Leera grew older, walking grew even harder, and doctors told her she would likely spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
However, amputation provided a sense of hope.
“There were possibilities and scary ideas that I wouldn’t be able to walk no matter what we did," Doederlein expressed. "When I went to my parents about it - my parents have always been super supportive - they trusted me enough to say if you believe this is best for you, we will fully support you.”
In June 2017, Doederlein went in for surgery and was fitted for her first prosthetics a few months later. It was there she was introduced to adaptive sports.
"A guy came up to me and he was missing one leg too, and he said 'Hey, you should come try sled hockey,'" she said. "That was it.”
However, it wasn't until 2019 - after a bit of convincing - that Doederlein was introduced to the world of skiing by five-time Paralympian and gold medalist Oksana Masters.
“I just kept saying I didn’t have time, and then about a year later she’s like hey you should come to this event - it’s a cool clinic," she laughed. "I got on the snow, and it was pretty much the exact same situation as hockey. I just fell in love with it. Two weeks later I went to my first ski nationals and from then on I just kept skiing.”
Lera was named to the National Development Team a few months later where she eventually moved to Bozeman during the winter months to train for Beijing 2022.
“It’s crazy because two years ago from now - especially seeing the growth that I’ve had has been pretty sweet to see, so if I do get chosen for that team I will be ready to give it my all," Doederlein affirmed.
Doederlein has qualified for para-nordic skiing under the Olympic standards, but it won’t be for a few more weeks until she knows for sure if she’ll be competing for Team USA.