COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — No thoughts could burden Mandy Horvath on the Manitou Incline trail. The physical pain was too distracting, and that was a kind of pain she could take: the burning in her chest and the aching in the hands she used to lift herself over the mountainside’s 2,700-plus steps.
“Just get to the top.” That was the only thought that occurred to the 25-year-old, who had endured a far more winding and grueling path on her way to the region’s most punishing trail.
Days after the five-hour endeavor that made her the first double-amputee woman known to ascend the Incline, she sits before another TV camera. She’s again making time between her full-time job and her evening classes at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
She’s again telling the story, returning to that July night of 2014 that ended in her waking up in her own blood beside the train tracks, pushing away paramedics who tried to tell her that her legs were crushed, gone.
Horvath tells the reporter that she was left there after a date-rape drug knocked her out at a small-town Nebraska bar.
“Whoa,” the reporter remarks here at the base of the Incline. “OK, I didn’t know that part of the story.”
Horvath nods, her straight face breaking into that big smile for every hiker who stops to congratulate her. One woman hugs her. “I just have to say, you are so amazing.”
Away from the camera and the admirers, Horvath says celebrity has been strange. “Yes, I was raising awareness,” she said. “But I wasn’t expecting it to blow up quite like this.”
She’s an instant Incline legend, says Fred Baxter, who’s seen countless achievements on the trail he’s frequented almost daily since 1996. This might be the most impressive. “Just unbelievable,” he says, at a loss for any more words.
Also at a loss is Keith Topping, one of the two friends who accompanied Horvath up the Incline. “Humbling,” he says to the question of what it was like to be alongside her.
Then he chokes up and stays quiet for a long while.
“She’s got a bunch of lemons she was given, you know. She’s making lemonade,” he says. “She’s making the best of it.”
For now she’s happy, and that’s not something she thought she’d ever be four years ago.
“I thought that life was over,” she recalls thinking in the hospital bed.
The questions crept up as the depression deepened. Would she ever hunt again? Would she ever dance again? Would she ever be loved again?
The boyfriend she suspected of ruining her was out of her life. One day at the hospital, Horvath’s mother called him out for changing his story with the cops, and the breakup followed, and that November he was found dead in a car that was still running.
So then came again the question that Horvath had asked over and over.
Why? Why, why, why?
Now in the hospital her mother was devastated at her bedside, brushing her hair as she slept, looking down where those long legs once were. Lisa Horvath called her baby “my little giraffee.” That was back when she put little Mandy in dresses and heels, way back when.
A priest prayed in the room. “The doctor wasn’t sure she was gonna make it,” Lisa says. But one day Mandy looked at her mom and mouthed, “Leave me the (expletive) alone,” and Lisa knew her baby would be fine.
She would be fine, but she was broken. She cut off her hair and lay on the couch in baggy T-shirts and basketball shorts, showing no will as she tossed back some of the 22 pills that only kept the pain away briefly.
“I’m not gonna let her give up, hell no,” her mother recalls thinking. “She’s not gonna do that to me. I’m supposed to go first, that’s the rule.”
Lisa took her to rehab. Mandy pulled herself off the drugs and talked to people who made her feel better. She learned about a woman who ran races in prosthetics and felt inspired.
After treatment, she got a flower tattooed on her shoulder with the words: “Every storm runs out of rain.”
Later, Horvath thought she could use humor to cope. The last time she was in the news was when her Tinder profile went viral — lifeproofbionicwoman sexualized her disability and got the masses laughing.
But often times it’s hard to laugh. Back in Missouri, her mother still cries.
“Something that traumatic, you want answers, but sometimes you never get ’em,” Lisa says. “You gotta go on. That’s what she’s trying to do.”
Every July, Mandy gets this “doomed, depressed feeling,” she says. “That’s just PTSD.”
And still, she says, she hasn’t stopped wishing she had legs.
“That process is never-ending,” she says.
But she has another tattoo that reminds her to live. The words across her chest could be seen as she crawled up the Incline in a tank top: “Tell me that I can’t and I’ll show you that I can.”
At the summit she laid on her back, looking up at the sky where clouds gathered. She felt relief like she’d never felt.
Then, she came back down.