Eustis man hopes to represent USA in 2020 Tokyo Paralympics

Kevan Hueftle lost part of his left leg during a hunting accident in 2005. Now, 15 years later he has his sights set on competing in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

Three-hundredths of a second might seem an inconsequential length of time over the course of a normal day’s activities.

For a sprinter like Kevan Hueftle it meant the difference between a good race and a great one.

The Eustis native finished fourth in both the 100- and 200-meter races during the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai this November, in the latter coming in three-hundredths of a second behind fellow Team USA runner David Prince.

“My favorite number has always been three. I am pretty much obsessed by it,” Hueftle said during a recent telephone interview. “So to lose by .03 is almost the perfect mental edge for me to use in training.”

It is the motivation that Hueftle is using as he trains for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis in June. The goal is to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Paralympic Games Aug. 25-Sept. 6.

“This is the big year,” said Hueftle, who was among 54 athletes named to the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Team on Thursday. “I’m 34 years old. I don’t know how many more years I have of doing this.”

While Hueftle knows where he wants to go, it’s important to take a few moments to look back at the physical and mental challenges and addiction he faced to get to this point.

“This whole journey I have been on has been pretty insane,” said Hueftle, who is part of a family farm operation raising and processing Red Angus cattle in the Eustis-Cozad area.

It began with a hunting incident in 2005 that severely injured Hueftle’s left foot. As he was getting out of his truck to take a shot at a coyote, his rifle accidentally went off.

Hueftle was transported to the Cozad Community Hospital, then flown by helicopter to Omaha, where he had four surgeries on his foot over an 11-day span.

“(The doctors) actually wanted to amputate it the first night, but there was no way I was going to do that,” said Hueftle, who lives in Eustis with his wife, Nicole, and two children.

After the surgeries, his foot had limited movement and flexibility and Hueftle finally decided it had little use as well.

“It just came down that (the foot) wasn’t going to fit the lifestyle I wanted,” said Hueftle, who earned a degree in livestock management from Southeast Community College in 2009. “So at 20 years old, I was ready to cut my own foot off.”

His left leg was amputated just below the knee on March 30, 2006.

Hueftle said he pushed himself too hard to get back to his day-to-day activities, including a short, unsuccessful return to the University of Nebraska at Kearney men’s track team just months after the operation.

He said he soon fell into a depression and turned to alcohol to attempt to deal with it.

Hueftle got to the point where he was drinking upwards of a case of beer or bottle of schnapps a day or a bottle of vodka every few days.

But after roughly a decade of heavy drinking, he decided on Aug. 7, 2015, to stop and has been sober since.

“Just something clicked,” Hueftle said. “All of a sudden, boom — it was over. I didn’t want it, didn’t need it and didn’t crave it. At 30 years old, I was done with it.”

Hueftle got the urge to make another run in track in early 2017. He had been a standout athlete at Eustis-Farnam High School. In his senior year in 2004, he was part of a boy’s 1,600 relay team that posted a time of 3 minutes, 26.85 seconds, which still is the Class D record.

“I just missed competing and training hard for something,” Hueftle said. “I had been telling stories of how I could do this or I was this fast. It started to piss me off that I kept talking about myself and wasn’t doing anything about it.”

Part of his comeback involved getting a new prosthetic that was more compatible with sprinting. Through Never Say Never, a Florida-based foundation that assists amputees, he was put in contact with Dr. Greg Davidson.

Hueftle traveled to Davidson’s office just outside Seattle, and he returned with three new sprinter prosthetics.

Hueftle took the bronze medal in the 400 during the 2017 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships and also finished fourth in the 100 and fifth in the 200.

He earned a silver in the 200 in the 2018 Arizona Grand Prix and repeated that effort in the same meet the next year, when he also earned a silver medal in the 100.

Exactly four years after his first day of sobriety, Hueftle received his Team USA gear as he had qualified for the Parapan American Games in Peru, which were held in August.

“It makes you think there are higher powers at work,” he said.

He won the 100 in that meet and finished second in the 200.

“I had some questions going into that meet — just wondering if I really belonged competing at that level or not,” Hueftle said. “But I know I belong now. That part of me that had that doubt has gone away, big time.”

Hueftle’s strength coach lives in South Dakota and his track coach is in Florida. The two write workouts for Hueftle and he often follows them by himself in gyms in Cozad and Eustis or even on his ranch.

When time allowed during the harvest this fall, he would take breaks of 20 minutes or so to get some training runs in — using the highway, alfalfa fields or even corn rows as his track.

“It wasn’t always pretty and it wasn’t always the best,” Hueftle said, “but I went to bed that night knowing I got in what I needed to.”

One of Hueftle’s inspirations is Justin Gatlin, a former world and Olympic champion in the 100 and former world champion in the 200.

Last week Hueftle responded to one of Gatlin’s posts on Instagram and received not only a direct message from Gatlin but a 45-second voicemail on the social media app as well.

“I’ve probably listened to it more than 100 times,” Hueftle said. “It made me bawl my eyes out because I have been looking up to that guy since I started this journey.

“For him to be in my DM and to leave me a personal message — to take time out of his day and busy schedule and motivate me, that was amazing.”

Hueftle has found his own track career has made an impact as well.

“Being able to compete as a member of Team USA has been awesome, but what I love more is just the support I have got on the whole journey,” Hueftle said. “I have people coming up and telling me, ‘Hey, you are the one who made me get up and do this.’ It’s things like that — the people that you didn’t realize that you were affecting.”

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