After suffering a life-altering injury in 2015, former Marine Kirstie Ennis found new purpose in athletics and real estate.

Engel and Völkers real estate agent Kirstie Ennis is no stranger to the spotlight.

She’s graced the cover of ESPN’s annual Body Issue, walked across Britain with Prince Harry, won three gold medals at the Warrior Games, and has made headlines for her goal of becoming the first female above-the-knee amputee to summit the world’s seven highest peaks (she’s already conquered Kilimanjaro, Carstensz in Indonesia, Iliniza Norte in Ecuador, and part of Mount Everest) all while running a successful non-profit.

On Wednesday night, Ennis was able to add one more achievement to her list during the 2019 Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly Award (ESPYs) — the Pat Tillman Award for Service, which is named in honor of slain NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who enlisted at the height of his football career soon after the 9/11 attacks.

“Pat lived his life with passion and conviction, driving forward in the face of any obstacle that crossed his path,” Tillman’s widow, Marie, board chairwoman and co-founder of the Pat Tillman Foundation, said in a prepared statement on Tuesday. “I see that same drive and courage in Kirstie as she continues to push the limits and achieve her best.”

While on stage, Ennis attempted to hold back tears while tightly gripping the silver award reminiscent of Atlas, steadily holding the world on his back.

“It’s been a long road,” she said. “To be recognized in the memory of a true American hero and sports legend is a tremendous honor.”

In an interview with Inman, Ennis shared what traveling the “long road” was like —  full of twists, turns, pit stops, and detours that began in 2012 with a helicopter accident during a tour in Afghanistan.

Ennis during one of her hospital stays | Photo courtesy of Kirstie Ennis

The former Marine gunner and airframes mechanic suffered injuries to her brain, skull, spine, shoulders, face and left leg. After three years of therapy and 40 surgeries, the doctors determined her leg couldn’t be saved. They’d remove it from the calf down in an initial surgery in November 2015, only to go back and remove Ennis’ knee a month later.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster,” she said, while recounting the difficultly in learning to walk again and imagine a life outside the Marines. “There were a lot of really high, highs and a lot of really low, lows.”

The lows drove Ennis to contemplate suicide, but her Marine training and previous experience as an athlete got her physically, mentally, and emotionally back on track.

“The reality of being in the Marine Corps is that everybody else comes before you, and I thank God every day that I joined the Marine Corps for that reason,” she said. “I realized this life wasn’t meant to be lived for just yourself, and that I was one of the lucky ones — I woke up and I came home.”

”I made it back, broken. But, I can still do whatever I want. I can still live a happy, healthy life, and I can still have a career,” Ennis added. “I joined the Marine Corps to serve others, and now, I’m just serving others in another way.”

A few months after her last surgery in December 2015, Ennis competed in the 2016 Invictus Games as a rower, swimmer, and outdoor cyclist. Soon thereafter, she began preparing to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in order to raise funds for The Waterboys, a non-profit providing clean water to communities across sub-Saharan Africa.

Ennis’ latest trek up Mount Denali | Photo courtesy of Kirstie Ennis

She raised $150,000 during that climb and her route became clearer — she’d combine her passion for athletics and philanthropy and establish The Kirstie Ennis Foundation.

“I needed a way to legitimize what I was doing. Big corporations don’t want to give money to someone who isn’t a 501c(3),” she said while laughing. “We’re super small, super homegrown, but in less than a year, we’ve already helped six other non-profits and have given about $100,000 in help and assistance.”

One of the non-profits Ennis has aided is Building Homes for Heroes, a New York-based organization that provided a home for Ennis after she was medically discharged from the Marines in 2014. In her work as a spokesperson for the group, Ennis unearthed another way she could give back between preparing and planning her summits: she wanted to become a real estate agent.

A year and a half ago, Ennis joined Engel and Völkers Snowmass in Snowmass Village, Colo. with a special mission to help military members, veterans, and people with disabilities to find the perfect home.

“I recognized what that [Building Homes for Heroes] home did for me and my family, and I really wanted to be able to facilitate that for other people,” she said. “A home is far more than just four walls. I recognize the value of a solid home and what having a place that you actually love can do.”

Now that the ESPYs is over, Ennis is focused on building her real estate career, completing boardercross training for the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, and continuing her Seven Summits challenge, which includes trekking to the North and South Poles.

“The biggest thing is realizing that you’re not living your life for yourself,” she said. “I believe in being able to look at somebody else, and say, ‘Hey, if they can do it, I can too.’ And these goals just reinforce the mentality of being the best version of yourself, and encouraging others to do the same.”

Email Marian McPherson

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