After a helicopter accident while serving in Afghanistan in 2012, U.S. Marine Corps Veteran and iFIT Trainer Kirstie Ennis lost her left leg and was forced into medical retirement. Despite her struggles, Kirstie wanted to find another way to continue serving people.
Reflecting on when she first adapted to life on one leg, Kirstie knew she wanted to inspire others to not allow their circumstances to control them. Since the accident, she’s become a competitive para-athlete, public speaker, Hollywood stuntwoman, and mountaineer, to name a few of her accolades. Now, Kirstie works with a variety of organizations, including the Kirstie Ennis Foundation, to help improve the quality of life for others through mobility, education, and healing in the outdoors. She continues to push boundaries today with her mission to tackle the Seven Summits on one leg by 2021.
Can you expand on your experience with losing your leg and learning how to walk again?
In 2012, I was severely injured in Afghanistan while serving as a helicopter door gunner in the Marine Corps. As a result of the helicopter crash, I sustained a traumatic brain injury, trauma to my cervical spine, damage to my arms, ears, and eyes, and breaks to my leg that would later result in a below-knee amputation. Over time, my limb got worse and due to complications, I became an above-the-knee amputee in 2015.
The easiest way to explain the recovery process of an amputee is it’s never-ending and, quite frankly, it’s like being a toddler all over again. First learning how to balance, then walk, move on uneven terrain, and eventually run. However, all too often it’s like taking one step forward and two steps back. Since 2015, I’ve had three other revisions to my residual limb that have required learning it all over again.
What was it like recovering from your injury, mentally and physically?
All too often, people see me and think that losing my limb was the hardest part. However, it’s really the invisible injuries that have been the hardest to overcome because of all of the unseen emotions and internal battles. Brain injuries and PTSD require a lot of attention and have unique learning curves, but physical injuries leave a lot of emotional pain too—such as grief and survivor’s guilt.
Since your injury in 2012, you’ve flipped the script on what it means to be an above-the-knee amputee. What message do you hope people take away from your story?
It’s the six inches between our ears and what’s behind our ribcages that determine what we are capable of. If we keep our heads and hearts in the right place, we can overcome anything.
In 2013, you began competing in Paralympic boardercross and banked slalom. What led you to competitive snowboarding, and how did that transcend into mountaineering?
A nonprofit walked into my hospital room at a time that I would’ve done anything to get out of it. They offered to teach me how to do a winter sport. Even though I’m originally from Florida, I jumped at the opportunity. When I arrived in Breckenridge, Colorado and no one asked me for a medical clearance, I decided that I wanted to learn to snowboard because it looked the “coolest.” Then, the rest was history. It was a solid reminder of my resiliency and that I could still be independent regardless of what my injuries were. No one else could get me down that mountain.
I stopped competing in 2016 after I had another setback of a surgery, but I still needed something to keep myself focused and setting goals. I decided that I was going to climb Kilimanjaro in March of 2017 (not sure my doctors would be happy to hear about that). I managed to climb up and down the mountain in four and a half days. That’s when I realized I was strong and stubborn enough to be a good mountaineer.
The best part was the team I climbed with raised nearly $150,000 for clean water for the East Tanzanians. That’s when I decided that I would use mountaineering as an opportunity to continue as an athlete while having a means to still be of service to others.
You just climbed Denali on June 12, 2021, the highest point in North America. Describe your emotions when you reached the top.
Summiting Denali this year was an insanely emotional experience. It was a reattempt after having to turn around in 2018. As we went over the summit ridge, it was overwhelming. Hands down, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically or emotionally. I was humbled, yet so proud of my team. I cried several times while standing up there.
What’s been your greatest accomplishment?
Surviving my darkest days and living to be a role model to the next generation.
What is your “why” that drives you?
The next generation. The kids who need hope, the men and women needing inspiration, and the non-believers waiting for me to prove them wrong. My “why” is about all of the people around me and leaving a legacy that shows we don’t have to let one chapter of our lives determine the rest of the story. An injury, setback, or failure does not define us.
What’s been your favorite place that you’ve traveled to thus far?
To relax: Italy. To climb and explore: the Himalayas.
What’s something that not many people know about you?
I am a serial entrepreneur, having owned and sold several businesses from a variety of industries. Currently, my main focuses are a brewery, whiskey company, speakeasy, and apparel company. I also have three master’s degrees and am in my last year of a doctorate.
Outside of completing the Seven Summits, what other goals do you have that you’d like to cross off?
The World Marathon Challenge and The Great Divide Ride.
Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. iFIT assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article. Always follow the safety precautions included in the owner’s manual of your fitness equipment.
Opinions of iFIT Trainers are their own and may not be those of iFIT.