Orlando Perez learned that he had a tumor growing on his spinal cord in 1995. He’d joined the military a few years earlier in an effort to bring structure to his life and provide for his family, and he was an avid stand-up soccer player. After falling from a wall while participating in a U.S. Army training exercise at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Orlando learned that he’d need surgery to remove the tumor that would leave him paralyzed from the waist down.
“We knew that I wasn’t going to be able to walk again,” Orlando says of his last night before surgery. “My buddies from the Army took me to play soccer. We played, probably from eight to midnight, and ate pizza on the soccer field. It probably had to be midnight when the personnel came and tried to kick us out. My friends explained what was going on, and we probably played until two o’ clock in the morning.”
After he was injured, Orlando wasn’t so much concerned about physically walking, but about being able to care for his family. Recovery was “a struggle,” and Orlando experienced depression and anxiety while recovering in a VA hospital in Puerto Rico.
One day his family saw a sign hanging in the hospital hall: National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Orlando’s family encouraged him to try wheelchair basketball, despite Orlando’s opposition to the idea. “I was having a pity party,” Orlando remembers. But his family pushed him to try the game. “I said to myself if I don’t like it, at least I tried,” he says.
And then, Orlando witnessed a wheelchair basketball game. “I saw how athletic they were, their ability, the chairs… everything was unique, everything was precise for that sport. They actually had basketball chairs, they weren’t hospital chairs – the equipment caught my attention and I wanted to go try it.” He fell in love with wheelchair basketball in 1998, and made the Puerto Rican National Team in 1999. Orlando won the Puerto Rico Wheelchair Basketball Rookie of the Year Award in his first season.
Before retiring from wheelchair basketball in 2017, Orlando was a member of the Puerto Rican National Team which competed in three Para-Panmerican Games, two America’s Cups, and won medals in each of the four Center-American Championships. “Adaptive sports have really impacted my life,” Orlando says, “not just as an athlete and a participant… they created a career for me.”
The skills, agility, and innovations of newcomers to basketball have changed the game since Orlando started playing in 1998. “It was hard to leave that behind, I didn’t want to give up that competition part,” he says, but felt his time on the basketball court had come to a close. So when Orlando received a call last year that Puerto Rico was in need of Paralympic participation for the 2022 Winter Games, he didn’t hesitate to say yes to a new sport on snow.
After training with the race camp at The Hartford Ski Spectacular, conducted by Disabled Sports USA, Orlando is aiming to be a contender in mono-ski racing at the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. “I found something that I can keep up with right next to everybody else. Able-bodied skiers, sit-down skiers – we can all go as fast as we want.” If Orlando achieves his goal, he will be the first athlete from Puerto Rico to compete in the Winter Paralympic Games.
Orlando is excited to move from a team sport to an individual sport. “If I don’t make it, it’s all me – and I like that. I like to put that pressure on myself, because it’s just going to help open my mind to how I can help others.” This new perspective will help Orlando grow his new organization, P9 Adaptive Recreation, which is dedicated to building awareness of adaptive sporting opportunities and supporting adaptive recreational organizations in his community.
As a successful adaptive athlete and advocate, Orlando feels that his experience with disability has given him a purpose. “I love my wheelchair. I don’t miss walking, because I’ve done way bigger things in my wheelchair than I ever had done walking,” he says, and Orlando believes strongly in passing on the joy that adaptive sports has brought him. “You have to get to the newly injured, go to the hospitals, go to the rehab units. And just show them, you know – there’s nothing to it. You just try.”