After suffering an injury from a boating accident in September 2002 that required a below-knee amputation of his left leg, Michael Shea, Jr. didn’t know what was going to be possible.
Brittani Coury is a member of the 2017-18 U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding Team who is vying for the opportunity to participate in the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Gail Gaeng was born with nerve damage and has used leg braces to assist with mobility from a very early age. But that didn’t stop her interest in sports. When she was in the 7th grade, the Frederick, Maryland resident started playing basketball.
At just eight years old, Nicole Roundy was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma, a form of bone cancer. “I went through aggressive chemotherapy and elected to amputate my right leg above the knee,” she said. Despite limb loss, she has worked her way to be consistently ranked as one of the best adaptive snowboarders in the world.
A native of Utah, her journey began in 2002 when as a visitor, she attended the Winter Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City. As she watched other athletes with disabilities compete, she saw snow sports as the way to achieve independence. She started with three-track skiing, but struggled to pick herself up from
the snow. “I have a lot of respect for skiers because I found it very difficult,” she said. Two years later, she tried snowboarding through the National Ability Center, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. Those early years for her were also the early years for adaptive snowboarding. Her equipment consisted of a board that was rigged to a prosthetic boot. Plus, her prosthesis limited her to what she could do on the slopes. It didn’t matter; she just wanted to be on the snow.
Finally, advances in prosthetic knees allowed her to pursue the sport beyond recreationally. In 2006, she became the first above-knee amputee, male or female, to compete in adaptive snowboarding. Her success led to further demands in the prosthetic knee industry and she played a large role in introducing the sport of snowboarding to the Paralympics.
Back in 2006, there were also only four or five women actively involved in the sport. That number has grown as adaptive snowboarding lessons and competitions are promoted within many DSUSA chapters.
As one of the longest standing participants, Roundy, now 31, believes that half of winning is just showing up. She has done just that. She represented the United States in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi and has won more than 20 World Cup medals. Recently, she won the bronze medal in Snowboard Cross at the 2017 World Championship held at Big White Resort in Canada. She is hoping to do better at the 2018 Paralympic Games in South Korea.
She is in the midst of her training, working on everything from the tactical, the mental, and the physical. Her preparation includes lifting weights and getting the muscles to move faster and react quicker as well as stretching to ensure the muscles do not become tight or restrictive. She admits she needs to improve her flexibility the most, so yoga has also become a part of her routine doing what she calls “yoga for the non-flexible.” Roundy is also working on her endurance. “If you think about it, we are on the snow for only two minutes,” she said. And although she is not a fan of cardio, anytime she is on the machine she thinks of the gold medal to get her through it.
Regardless of what happens in South Korea, this world-class snowboarder and childhood cancer survivor will be excited to be there as an athlete. The sport is as enjoyable for Roundy now as it was during her teenage years when she yearned for that sense of freedom. “Standing on top of the mountain and looking down at the fresh powder and knowing I can do whatever I want going down is a powerful feeling,” she said. “I feel enabled.” That being said, Nicole has never really thought of herself as being disabled. “It is a part of my life, a part of who I am.”
In 2004, Noah Grove developed bone cancer in his left leg that resulted in an amputation. He was only five years old. Fast forward eight years later and he finds himself at the adaptive sports program at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. “My mom said we were going on a drive… it was sorta against my will,” he said.
But that is all it took. The son of Chris and Rachael Grove soon found himself playing sled hockey on the Bennett Blazers junior team. Once a week, they would drive to Baltimore for practice and would play games through the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast. Grove became a skilled player and would join the USA Warriors, a team comprised of mostly wounded warfighters that is based out of the Rockville Ice Arena. He also skated for two seasons with U.S. National Development Sled Hockey Team and made the National Team in 2016. “I was shocked when I made the team,” he said. His first year on the team was difficult. “I lacked confidence.”
However, the team did win a gold medal at the World Sled Hockey Challenge that year, followed by a silver medal at the 2017 World Para Ice Hockey Championship in Gangneung, South Korea. “We are very disappointed about the silver,” he said. After all, the team won the gold medal in Sochi and had advanced to its fifth straight gold-medal match. “I was only out there (on the ice) for 90 seconds and I wish I could have contributed more to the team.”
The 2017 Urbana High School graduate is now attending the University of New Hampshire, where he gets to play hockey almost every day with an adult competitive team through Northeast Passage, another chapter of Disabled Sports USA. “There are several players at UNH that I have played with or against over my career,” he said.
In addition, he is still a member of the 2017-18 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, where he plays Forward. “Although I prefer playing the wing, this position allows me to be creative,” he said. In December, the team won gold at the World Sled Hockey Challenge held in Prince Edward Island. Grove was named the Player of the Game for the match against Italy on December 4th.
His goal is to return to South Korea for the 2018 Paralympic games. The roster is being announced in January and he wants to be one of the fifteen players that make the cut. “I don’t just want to go to South Korea,” he said. “I wanted to go and be able to contribute to the team.” We will definitely be rooting for Noah and Team USA in March!
In the military community Alive Days are important anniversaries, commemorating the day a warfighter is severely wounded in battle. They memorialize a day that went from just another day on the job to the day when a new normal began. Retired Air Force Staff Sergeant Dan Acosta has celebrated 11 Alive Days since the fateful day in December 2005 when he was injured by a bomb while on patrol, lost his left arm and suffered significant damage to his legs.
Dan joined the Air Force in 2002 knowing that he wanted to be an Explosive Ordinance Device (EOD) Technician. As he puts it, he was drawn to the challenge. Simply graduating from EOD school is a significant achievement as it is among the most difficult training schools in the military. The school is open to all four military branches, and to enlisted members and officers alike, but the school is so difficult that it has an 80% failure rate.
“It had the academic challenge, the physical challenge, the mental attitude challenge,” said Dan. “It just puts you to the limit where you have to commit. You have to be all in, 100 percent or not.”
Dan was up for the challenge, and after successfully completing school he was sent to Baghdad, Iraq. To get a sense of Dan’s life in Iraq, it is best to picture the 2010 Academy Award Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, which follows a EOD technician dismantling explosives in Baghdad.
“Every single one of those situations in that movie, I’ve seen or been in a lot worse,” said Dan. “The scene where they’re called to a roadside IED, that was like four or five times a day for me.”
On December 7, 2005, Dan was called to a ‘routine roadside bomb’. While routine and roadside bomb don’t seem to fit into the same sentence, this is the routine for those special graduates of EOD school who are sent overseas.
That day, Dan and his team found and successfully disarmed two devices.
“I just had a gut feeling that there was a third one there, so I wanted to find it and disarm it,” he said. “So I started to do a little courtesy sweep where I thought it might be and sure enough I found it.”
Dan stepped on a pressure plate with 30 pounds of explosives attached. In addition to losing his arm, the bomb sent sand and dirt coursing into Dan’s skin at a high pressure, causing severe damage to his legs.
“A lot of people look at a bomb go off and see the fire, the thermal effect, and consider that as the damaging part of a bomb,” he said. “It’s actually the overpressure that it creates. Just that amount of pressure against my body, the sand and dirt and debris literally just tore the meat off of my legs.”
Surviving his first surgery was another milestone for Dan, whose survival expectancy rate was determined to be 10 percent according to the doctors who were operating on him. Dan’s teammate Staff Sergeant Joe Upton, who saved Dan’s life providing combat first-aid immediately after the explosion, was told that if he survived the first surgery his chances would be 50 percent survival. Dan passed that milestone too, and six days later arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas for more surgeries and to start rehabilitation.
“I felt like the moment I was in that hospital longer than I should be was going to be the thing that killed me,” he said.
It was at BAMC that he re-learned to walk, and shortly thereafter he signed up for to snowboard with Disabled Sports USA in Breckenridge, Colorado.
“I actually spent my very first Alive Day with Disabled Sports USA in Breckenridge,” said Dan. “That was the milestone that just really was the tipping point to want to live happy. From coming to re-learn how to walk and spending my first alive day snowboarding was just awesome.”
In addition to snowboarding, Dan also participated in the Warfighter Sports golf program at BAMC. While it wasn’t a sport he had participated in prior to his injury, Dan found his swing quickly, and completed the eight-week clinic series with local PGA Professionals. As part of his completion of the program Dan received a set of custom-fitted PING clubs. The game helped his recovery, in more than just physical rehabilitation.
“Golf is one of those games where it’s a game of consistency and a little bit of strategy and just really controlling your own anxieties,” he said. “All of that stuff really helped at that time in my life with really balancing out my own personal life.”
Dan used the game as his physical therapy for his legs, walking the course and playing about four times a week for about three years until he left BAMC and the San Antonio area.
Today, Dan lives in the Chicago area, where he works full-time for iJet International as an analyst and risk consultant. The full time job and Chicago weather don’t let him get out on the golf course as much as he would like, but he still uses his PING clubs on the links as many times a year as he can.
Dan remains involved in adaptive sport as an ambassador for Warfighter Sports, as an advisory team member for Tee it Up for the Troops, a Warfighter Sports national partner, and as a board member for Adaptive Adventures, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. He hopes to get even more involved in adaptive sports in the coming years to help others reach their own milestones.
“[Adaptive Sport] has done so much for me, to want to continue life in a very positive way,” said Dan. “Just being the EOD guy I love helping people and love saving lives that if I can continue that in another way, I want to do so and I think it’s through adaptive sports.”
In 2005, US. Air Force Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, Jr. was severely injured when his Humvee hit an IED in Afghanistan. He lost most of his fingers and suffered third degree burns on more than 80% of his body. He spent nearly three months in a coma. Doctors told Del Toro that he had a 15 percent chance of survival and that he’d likely never walk or breathe on his own again. Del Toro used sports as part of his rehabilitation and overcame those odds, becoming the first 100 percent combat disabled Air Force technician to re-enlist in the military.
Growing up, Army Captain Matt Staton played sports and was extensively involved in outdoor activities. But a catastrophic injury he incurred while being deployed in Iraq left him questioning where does he go from here and what can he do.
Seventeen year old Tyler Stern has been skiing since he was four years old. Diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia, a subset of cerebral palsy that affects all four limbs,
The results of her hard work were evident. Gabby took home two Silver Medals and six Bronze Medals at the 2017 Invictus Games.
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.
Insha was six years old in 2005 when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the northern region of her home country of Pakistan. The earthquake took the lives of 75,000 people and uprooted three million others. The events of that day would start Insha’s life off on a trajectory towards the other side of the world and a skiing career she never could have imagined.
At 19, Noah would say he is just like any other teenager. But after a car accident that caused his spinal cord injury, he and his family were uncertain whether that would actually be true.
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.