In December 2007, Retired U.S. Air Force Technical Sergeant Adam Popp was rehabbing at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Earlier in the month, he had been injured by an IED while deployed to Afghanistan in support of the U.S. Army during Operation Enduring Freedom that resulted in losing his right leg above the knee. Approximately ten years later, Adam is preparing to represent Team USA at the third Invictus Games, scheduled to take place September 23-30 in Toronto, Canada.
Founded in 2014 by the United Kingdom’s Prince Harry, the Invictus Games use sports to inspire and garner support for the men and women who serve their country. More than 550 athletes from 17 nations will compete in 12 adaptive sports. Adam is among the 41 athletes on this year’s Team USA 90 member roster that has participated in activities organized by Disabled Sports USA or one of our chapters.
Around the second or third month of rehab, he went to an open house at the hospital and was introduced to DSUSA. Among the first things he participated in was the 2008 Ski Spectacular. Since then, he has skied at other locations and went on a scuba diving trip to Guantanamo Bay with SUDS, a DSUSA chapter.
When the 2018 Paralympic Games comes around, which will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Warfighter Josh Elliott hopes to represent his country with pride as an athlete, just as he did as a United States Marine. The Paralympic hopeful has a goal of being in the top five, although he quickly points out that he would love nothing more to bring home a medal.
Elliott is a para alpine skier and he considers the Slalom and Giant Slalom events to be his bread and butter. Part of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine National Team, 2017 has been a pretty busy year for competitions leading up to next year’s Winter Games. In addition to taking the U.S. Slalom Championship Title, Elliott participated in the World Cup Circuit, which took him to eight countries, including the North America Cup in the U.S. and Canada, as well as races in Europe and South Korea. “Going to South Korea and being able to ski on the slopes that will be part of the 2018 Games is huge,” he said.
On the World Cup Circuit, Elliott was able to place third in the Giant Slalom (GS) in Slovania. He also finished fourth in G.S. at the 2017 World Para Alpine Skiing Championships in Tarvisio, Italy. The World Championships is, of course, the highest level of competition outside the Paralympics.
Over the past couple months, he has been able to participate in some Sierra Nevada Summer Camps allowing him to do some Giant Slalom and Super G training. According to Elliott, Mammoth Mountain has had plenty of snow, so they have been able to ski well into the summer months.
Elliott is focused on building up for season, which starts in November, and prepping for Pyeongchang. His training is focused on developing technique, strength and exercise, and diet. Elliott believes if you work on perfecting the technique, the speed will come if you are doing everything properly. “All of this work hopefully ensures that you peak at the right time,” he said.
The retired Marine Sergeant got into monoskiing in December 2011 through Disabled Sports USA’s Warfighter Sports program. Just eight months earlier, Elliott was in a medically-induced coma and had lost both of his legs by stepping on an IED (improvised explosive device) during a combat tour in Afghanistan. He spent part of his rehabilitation at Walter Reed in Bethesda as well as Navy Medical in San Diego. “Monoskiing quickly became one of my biggest therapies,” he said.
Before his injury, Elliott enjoyed snowboarding and monoskiing seemed to be a good fit for him. It is amazing to see how far you can take monoskiiing,” he said. “When I watched folks like Laurie Stephens, Tyler Walker, and Health Calhoun (all previous DSUSA Warfighter Sports participants), I never imagined I would be able to go that fast down a mountain as well.” Although others did, and encouraged him to enter the training program in Aspen, which he did. When he first got into para alpine skiing, the 2014 Paralympics were right around the corner. But he wanted to be realistic with his goals and therefore set his sight on 2018. “I decided I didn’t just want to go to the Olympics, but to go and be a contender,” he said.
Sgt. Elliott has participated in the AIG Winter Summit for several years. “Skiing helped me when I first went off medications and introduced me to a world of opportunities that I otherwise would never have known existed without AIG and Warfighter Sports.” he said. “Competitive alpine ski racing made me realize my full potential and gave me the drive to continue to live. The AIG Winter Summit has provided me the opportunity to turn my dream into reality.” After the 2018 games, the San Diego resident plans to retire from competitive skiing and hopes to be able to help others come through adaptive sports programs.
We will definitely be cheering for Sgt. Elliott at the next Paralympic Games, scheduled for March 9-18, 2018.
Ahalya is a fierce competitor who at 16 has already emerged onto the international swimming scene as an up and comer after winning gold at the 2015 Para-PanAm Games in Toronto in the 100 meter backstroke. Even more impressive than her young age, is that she only began swimming competitively three years prior, and the event was only her second international competition.
“High school is a pretty hard setting to go through when you’re different than most of the people you go with. I mean it’s a rough place in general.” Casey Ratzlaff’s outlet? Wheelchair tennis. “Sports changed my personality a bit, because I have something that I’m competitive about, and I have this drive in me to be great at something,” Casey said. “Its helped me grow as a person, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.”
The recent high school graduate who is attending Wichita State University tried a number of sports before he settled on tennis. Wheelchair basketball, sled hockey, and floor hockey were some sports he attempted without serious commitment.
“I never took them very seriously,” he said.
But from the moment Casey sat in a chair and played tennis, he knew he’d found his calling.
“I wasn’t very good. I could barely hit the ball with a racket,”
Casey said. “But once I hit the ball over, it started something for me. I wanted more.”
Casey, who was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects his lower limbs, had never been in a wheelchair prior to attending the clinic where he first tried wheelchair tennis. At the time, he was using crutches to assist his walking.
Luckily, Nick Taylor, the pro running the clinic and also a Wichita native, can spot raw talent when he sees it. When a guy who has won more than 300 matches in his career, including nine grand slam quad doubles victories and three Paralympic gold medals, says you have a knack for the sport of wheelchair tennis, you pay attention.
“He saw me at a young age; I think he saw potential in me,”
Casey said. “That helped me, because he wanted to push me to play as much as I wanted to play. That really worked with my drive.”
A little more than a year later Casey was named to the U.S.
World Cup Team. There he got to meet and compete against some of the best in the world.
“These past couple of years, I’ve gotten multiple chances to play with some of the best,” said Casey. “I think I’m lucky if I pull a number six in the world. I’ll get killed, but it’s a great learning experience.”
Playing that elite competition helped Casey improve his own game. Two summers ago, he traveled to the Netherlands with the U.S. junior team to compete in the World Cup and helped his team bring home the gold medal. Last summer, the boys’ junior team defended their title in Tokyo after defeating Chile 2-1 in the finals. He was also part of the men’s team that brought home fifth place in Tokyo.
“It was a dream come true,” said Casey. “I never thought going in that we were going to get that far and win it.”
But that success didn’t come without hard work. Casey spends nearly every day out on the court, hitting for a minimum of an hour, whether it’s playing against local club teams, his fellow high school tennis players, or working with his coach Jeff Clark, who also trained Nick Taylor.
“It’s good for me, because you get the chance to play with so many people who hit the ball differently,” he said.
While Casey said the World Cup win is the highlight of his young career so far, he also sees the team’s success as a great step in the right direction for his legacy in the sport. He believes that there is an unlimited ceiling for growth in the U.S. wheelchair tennis scene and is always looking for new talent, much like Nick was on the lookout when he found Casey.
“The ultimate goal for me is to make an impact in this country and really start something,” said Casey. “I just want to inspire people to play.”
As part of his goal to build a legacy, Casey applied for, and was accepted for the Disabled Sports USA E-Team, a program dedicated to empowering the next generation of Paralympic athletes, to help him share his story and network with more young adaptive athletes.
This spring, Casey will leave the halls of his high school behind for college. He’ll continue to play tennis and keep his sights set on the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, but for that incoming freshman who might need an outlet, Casey recommends trying out a new sport.
“Don’t make your disability an excuse to not go out and try things. If you want to explore, go explore,” Casey said. “I did it, and I think it’s worked out for me so far. Just be yourself and work hard at the things you love and you’ll go places in life.”
Melissa Stockwell lost her leg in Iraq. Now she’s part of the first Paralympic triathlon team and training future triathletes through Dare2tri, a Disabled Sports USA chapter she co-founded.
Jack O’Neil lost his leg at the age of nine. In the four years since, he’s participated in 15 triathlons and hopes to become like his mentor Melissa Stockwell.
Jessica Heims didn’t let the fact that she was born with Ambiotic Band Syndrome and lost her leg at 12 months slow her down.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Sergeant Dan Hernandez picked up his first golf club 20 years ago and has spent the majority of his life attempting to master the sport.
Kyle Malin grew up in Minnesota and never picked up a hockey stick. It wasn’t until he moved to the heat of Texas that he found his comfort zone in an ice rink.
Q&A with Heath Calhoun, Stephanie Victor, and Alana Nichols.
For November, our Athlete of the Month is Insha Afsar; an earthquake survivor, high school athlete and Alpine E-Team member.
For August, our Athlete of the Month is Noah Hotchkiss: an E-Team member, adaptive athlete and ambassador within his Native American community.
For July, our athlete of the month is Amanda Malawski: a track and field athlete, Paralympic hopeful and high school student.
For June, our Athlete of the Month is Landon Ranker: a Sergeant First Class in the Army and an endurance runner.
For May, our athlete of the month is Chris Bowers: a Marine corps veteran, golfer and adaptive instructor.
For April, our Athlete of the Month is Sam Kavanagh: a Paralympic bronze medalist in cycling.
For April, our Athlete of the Month is Aaron Pike: a dual sport Paralympian in track and field and Nordic skiing.
A military member and former high school basketball and track athlete, she knew she wanted to stay active despite her new injuries.
Steve Martin, a Warfighter Sports ambassador, hasn’t stopped moving since he got his first set of prosthetic legs after becoming a bilateral below knee amputee in 2008.
An outdoor enthusiast prior to her accident, Aimee wanted to get back outside so she began kayaking with Team River Runner, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA.
Shawn Cheshire began losing her vision as a result of a head trauma. She’s been competing ever since as a member of the U.S. Cycling National Development Team.
Bradley Johnson lost both of his legs in 1993. Eleven years later, Johnson has participated in three Paralympic Games.
Originally declared killed in action in April 2004, retired Army Major Anthony Smith has lived a revitalized life.
Born with an underdeveloped spinal cord, McFadden had to fight to survive. She’s been breaking barriers since birth.
Amy Purdy contracted bacterial meningitis at the age of 19 and subsequently had both of her legs amputated below the knee.In March 2014, she will compete in the Paralympic games.
Sarah Holm doesn’t instantly bring to mind the mental image of a ski racer. She enjoys the camaraderie of her team more than she thrives on competition.
Greg Shaw was born with a congenital condition that causes spinal deformity. That hasn’t stopped him from competing as part of the US Paralympic Men’s Sled Hockey team.
Lonnie Bedwell, a former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class, was injured in a hunting accident that took his sight instantly. Thirteen years later he got into adaptive sports.
Navy veteran Don Balcom is a member of Team Warfighter Sports, setting his sights on the marathon distance.
Anjali Forber-Pratt, a two time Paralympian in track and field, has been involved with adaptive sports from a young age.
For September, our Athlete of the Month is Stephanie Wheeler: a former collegiate wheelchair basketball player and current Team USA coach.