Staff Sergeant Mike Kacer (Retired) joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard in 1999, as a junior in high school, and went on a number of deployments, including Bosnia (2002-03), Iraq (20O4-05), and Afghanistan (2008). On June 18, 2008, Kacer would suffer from an ear to ear fracture, a broken jaw (in three places), two collapsed lungs, and his left arm being amputated. “A rocket landed ten feet to the left of me,” he said. He would be placed in a drug-induced coma. “The last thing I remember from that moment is being taken to a helicopter. The rest of it is a collection of what others tell me had happened.”
The retired infantry soldier focused on his rehabilitation from June 21, 2008 until he was discharged on May 27, 2010. While in rehab, he started participating in adaptive sports. “Sports is a big stress reliever and an escape from the realities of life.” The first activity he participated in through Disabled Sports USA’s Warfighter Sports program was the annual Bataan Memorial Death March, a challenging 26 mile march through the high desert terrain of the White Sands Missile Range in 2009. The memorial march is conducted in honor of the heroic service members who defended the Philippine Islands during World War II, sacrificing their freedom, health, and, in many cases, their very lives.
Later that year, he would also attend a surf camp. “Surfing is my favorite hobby,” he said. “You also develop these support systems at events like surf camp. The people you meet become more than friends, they become family.”
“Programs like DSUSA help get you outside your comfort zone and build confident to compete at the Paralympic level.” From 2012 to 2016, Kacer devoted his full-hearted passion to track and field, particularly competing in the 100m, 200m, and long jump with his eye on going to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. During that timeframe, he competed at the Great Lakes Regional Games, Endeavor Games, and Desert Challenge Games, all events that are hosted by DSUSA chapters. “Getting to the Paralympic level is tough, particularly breaking that barrier without having a steady coach. The challenge of being a full-time athlete is very difficult physically and mentally.”
“After Rio, I realized I couldn’t compete with the younger athletes,” he said. “I had an off season and starting falling into a depression.” Then, in June 2017, a friend suggested he give Taekwondo a try and he did. “Sports has saved my life on more than one occasion.” Living in Cary, North Carlina, he started training at White Tiger. That snowballed into competing at national tournaments and then internationally. He would finish third at a tournament in Costa Rica and sits around fifth on average, but through the points structure is ranked 11th in the world. His hope is to break into a wild card spot for the 2020 Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Right now, he is working to improve his technique, particularly not squaring up and improving his angles. He also wants to be snappy or fast as opposed to hard and powerful.
Before Tokyo however, Kacer will join more than 550 wounded, ill, and injured service men and women from 18 allied nations who will be competing at Invictus Games in Sydney, Austria from October 20-27, 2018. This will be his third and final Invictus Games (he also participated at the games in Orlando and London). “This is my farewell tour,” he said. “I am not sure I can continue to physically compete and I don’t want to get to a point where I am competing but not be competitive.”
At the Invictus Games, Kacer plans to do the 100m, 200m, 400m, and 1500m as well as shotput, discus, long jump, the one minute and four minute rowing trials, and all swimming events. “Training for both is grueling as you work two different series of muscles. I grind it out on my own and push my body to a point of exhaustion every time I train. I condition my body that way.”
Kacer also takes pride at being versatile, which is evident by the number and variety of competitions he will be entering. “I am not great in any one sport, but good in a number of sports. I don’t have a specialty event.” He believes he can be competitive in 9 of the 13 medal events. “I would love to get one of each (gold, silver, and bronze),” he said about the Sydney Games. “But I mainly looking forward to meeting up with familiar faces.”
Between adaptive sports and getting a degree from North Carolina Central University in physical education and health, he is setting a path forward. He gives a lot of credit to his support system of family members, friends, and doctors. “Dealing with mental health is not a sign of weakness. It takes a stronger human being to seek assistance than to ignore it.”