On March 21, 2009, Jen Lee was riding his motorcycle back to the military base with a few fellow soldiers back when he was struck by a car on Interstate 95. As a result of the accident, the Army Staff Sergeant suffered an Above-the-Knee amputation of his left leg.
As part of his recovery, Lee participated in a number of adaptive sports activities. His first interaction with Disabled Sports USA’s Warfighter Sports program was through a golf clinic at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, in March 2010. That year he also participated in the Endeavor Games organized by the University of Central Oklahoma, a chapter of Disabled Sports USA. “I played sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball there,” he said.
The sport he really latched onto was sled hockey. The California native grew up playing in-line roller hockey but had never played on ice. He learned of the sled hockey program operated by Operation Comfort, another chapter of Disabled Sports USA. “I had to try it.” Still on active duty, he played alongside other military athletes as part of the San Antonio Rampage, the local sled hockey club starting in 2009.
Lee made the National Team in 2011 and connected with Paralympic Silver Medalist John Register, who founded the United States Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Sport Program which shows wounded, ill, and injured veterans how to use sport as a tool for their rehabilitation. “John told me about the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program unit out of Fort Carson, Colorado.” He was selected to participate in that program in 2012, becoming one of the first active duty military members to medal.
As a member of Team USA, he would earn a Gold medal at the 2012 IPC Sled Hockey World Championships (held in Hamar, Norway) and a Silver medal at that event the following year in Goyang, South Korea.
At the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games in Sochi he saw action in two games, helping Team USA bring home the Gold medal. He loves his role as a goal tender on the team. “I think we (goalies) are wired differently. Most people like to try to score, but I love stopping the puck,” he said. “I love the audience reaction when you are successful… that motivation gets me going.”
The fast-paced and aggressive nature of sled hockey is why Lee particularly enjoys the game. “It is very therapeutic and allows me to let out some aggression.”
Lee retired in January 2015 from active duty military service. After Sochi, he also took two years off from the sport and the team. Being part of Team USA for his second go round at the Paralympics is extra special. “I worked my butt off to get back here,” he said. “So I will definitely enjoy every moment with my teammates.”
This past year, Lee relocated to Chicago and played with the Chicago Blackhawks Sled Hockey program sponsored by the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, another chapter of DSUSA, to prep for his return to Team USA. Leading up to the Winter Paralympic Games, he played with the team at the 2018 Turin International Para Ice Hockey Tournament in Italy, registering a shutout in his start and helping the team take home first place.
According to Lee, five or six “rookies” (first-time Paralympians) make up the team in South Korea. He sees an opportunity to support these new members. “We (the returning players) can help get the energy level going as well as provide insights into other teams.”
Besides sled hockey, Lee is completing a degree in Sports Management from the University of Texas. After he graduates in May, his goal is to become a strategic advisor for a professional sports team. He also wants to get into long distance sports, such as the triathlon. “I want to thank you (DSUSA) for your support of soldiers and athletes over the years,” he said.
UPDATE: Team USA came back to win 2-1 in overtime against Canada to win their third straight Gold medal at the Winter Paralympic Games.
Photo Credit: Joe Kusomoto