Hunter Woodall Is Chasing Paralympic Gold In Tokyo. But Not Before Dropping Out Of College To Found This $15 Million Startup
Two-time Team USA Paralympic athlete Hunter Woodhall has had his share of difficulties. Born with a congenital birth defect known as fibular hemimelia, Woodhall had both of his legs amputated at 11 months old, an inauspicious start to life as the youngest of three boys who tagged along with his competitive brothers to their youth sports.
Yet despite being told by doctors at birth that he would never walk, Woodhall decided he would run. After cutting his teeth on the high school track, he became the first-ever double-amputee to get an NCAA Division I scholarship. “A lot of the challenges and hurdles that I faced in my life have been from the fact that I did lose my legs, whether indirectly or directly,” says the 22-year-old, who will be making a bid for his first-ever Paralympic Games gold medal tomorrow in Tokyo. “It’s just been a massive hurdle, but once I got over it, it kind of turned into what I would say is one of my biggest strengths.”
For many athletes, participating in the Olympic Games comes at a high financial cost, as just making it to the games can mean make or break for most athletes. But the prize money the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee
Woodhall’s Giant Hoodies sells oversized hoodies, sweatshirts and joggers in a variety of designs online, retailing for about $60 each. The Paralympian has used his immense social media following to his advantage, advertising the startup to his nearly 300,000 Instagram followers. The company now has at least 150,000 customers, most of whom buy directly from Giant Hoodies, with 10% of sales coming from Amazon
Woodhall owns a third of the business, which he cofounded with fellow University of Arkansas students Jonathan Montgomery and Matt Horner inside a T-shirt printing shop in Fayetteville, pooling $1,000 of their savings to get the company off the ground. Montgomery studied business at Arkansas, and owned a jewelry company and T-shirt company in the Fayetteville area prior to launching Giant Hoodies. Horner majored in software development and brought computer savviness to the startup. To date, the trio has taken no outside investments to grow Giant Hoodies.
While his two partners were able to balance college life and running a business, Woodhall was forced to make a tough decision: Continue to compete as an NCAA athlete or, thanks to strict rules that prevented student-athletes from profiting off their name, image and likeness (NIL), drop out to become a retail entrepreneur and fulfill his dream of becoming a sponsored professional runner. Woodhall chose the latter.
What makes his clothing company so appealing is its draw with younger consumers, as it’s marketed by a young, successful athlete, says Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at the University of Columbia Business school. For any startup fashion company to make it, he says, they need to have a comfortable and trendy product that they continue to perfect over time.
As an online fashion company, Giant Hoodies is currently benefiting from the trend of consumers moving toward e-commerce to buy goods, Cohen says. “They don’t have to compete with companies like Nike
Recently, Woodhall has been making other investments off the track, including a budding real estate portfolio. Through his real estate company, Woodhall Estates LLC, he owns five properties in Arkansas. He says he currently makes about $15,000 per month in total revenue from his real estate ventures, and soon plans to bring his girlfriend and Tokyo track and field Olympian Tara Davis into the business.
And of course, Woodhall has been fortunate enough to find income streams on the track as well, as he’s currently partnered with four long-term sponsors: apparel company Champion
“The financial support that comes with [sponsors] kind of validates [running professionally] because at the end of the day, even though I do love this and I have a great passion to run track, it still is my job,” Woodhall says. “It still is something that I need to show up for every single day.”
As Woodhall takes to the track in Tokyo tomorrow to compete in the men’s 400 and 100 meter races, he may find himself with another financial windfall: This year marks the first time that Paralympic athletes that win gold, silver or bronze for Team USA will receive the same medal payout as Olympic athletes. If his silver and bronze medal-winning performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics are any indication, Woodhall could stand to make at least $15,000.
After he returns from Tokyo, Woodhall is considering returning to the University of Arkansas to finish out the remainder of his collegiate eligibility—thanks to a July replacement of the NCAA’s formerly strict name, image and likeness laws.
“I’m super excited now since these rules have been put in place and NCAA athletes are getting the opportunity to use their brand and monetize their names,” Woodhall says. “I would hope that the sacrifice that I made helped move that needle a little bit.”