Heart and Sochi

2014 Winter Olympic Games - Season 2014

The 2014 Paralympic winter games give impaired athletes a chance to perform on the world stage. Meet two of these exceptional competitors from the U.S. team.

Sometimes the best Olympic moments don’t even happen during the Olympics. Since 1976, the official Winter Olympics have made way for the Paralympic Winter Games, a set of competitions involving athletes with physical and mental disabilities (the Paralympic Summer Games launched in 1960). This set of competitions has produced numerous inspirational and memorable moments, and this year should be no exception.

The Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will take place March 7–16 and will hold events in five categories:

• Alpine skiing
• Biathlon
• Cross-country skiing
• Ice sled hockey
• Wheelchair curling

While the Paralympics don’t receive the attention of the standard Games, Paralympians are world-class athletes who survive rigorous qualification events to make it to the global stage. We spent time with two of these remarkable competitors from the U.S. team and found out how they became involved in the competition and what they hope to achieve this year.

Amy Purdy

Paralympic snowboarding
Birthday: Nov. 7, 1979
Height: 5’8”
Hometown: Las Vegas, Nev.

Since losing both of her legs to bacterial meningitis at age 19, Amy Purdy has won three back-to-back World Cup gold medals, founded Adaptive Action Sports, launched successful speaking and modeling careers, and even appeared on “The Amazing Race.” Now she’s “over the moon” that her organization’s efforts have helped add her beloved sport to the Paralympic Games.

When I lost my legs, there were zero resources or support for anybody with a disability who wanted to learn to snowboard.

I founded a nonprofit organization called Adaptive Action Sports years ago. Our big goal was getting snowboarding into the Paralympics.

Once I realized I could snowboard with two prosthetic legs, we started our organization to teach young adults and wounded vets how to snowboard. We put camps and clinics and events together. We’ve hosted an adaptive division to a national competition for the last 12 years.

My mom was a huge inspiration for my sister and me being fit and staying in shape. She worked a full-time job, but got up every day at 5:30 a.m. and worked out for at least an hour. She was in incredible shape.

We grew up skiing. At the age of 15, I started snowboarding and just absolutely fell in love with it and knew that it would be part of my life forever.

[My injury and the aftermath] were incredibly challenging and something you can’t ever prepare for. If someone had said, “At 19, you’re going to lose both of your legs and kidneys and almost your life and be in wheelchair,” that’s not anything anyone can wrap their head around and prepare for.

When it happened, it was a matter of taking things day by day. But having snowboarding and physical fitness as such a passion of mine is honestly what helped me get through it. When you are that sick and weak, you don’t ever want to be there again.

I was still in kidney failure. I was 83 lb and still getting used to my legs. But I had never missed a season of snowboarding before and I didn’t want to miss this season. I wanted to get up on a board on a mountain to see what it felt like.

People think prosthetic legs are these amazing, high-tech things. They honestly are not. They’re high-tech materials bolted together, but they do not move like the human foot, especially for snowboarding. And there’s no snowboarding feet on the market.

Instead of being discouraged, I was able to get more creative and think, How can I make this happen? My prosthetist andI put random pieces together and made this foot that moved in a way that allowed me to snowboard again.

I never looked at myself as a victim. I was very aware of how close I was to not being here. Yes, I lost my legs, my spleen, my kidneys, the hearing in my left ear. But I honestly feel I pulled out in great condition.

They say with two prosthetic legs you burn up to 60% more calories than the average person. And that’s just day to day, so imagine snowboarding three hours a day and training with your trainer three hours a day, four days a week.

I [have] an amazing trainer who I call “David, the Ass-Kicking Trainer.” I’ve gained 10 lb of muscle since May, and hope to gain another 5 lb in the next couple of months.

[I’m] staying focused on my passions, my goals, the things I always wanted to do. It’s amazing that I’m doing everything I set out to do. Just because you lose your legs, life doesn’t end.

Rico Roman

Paralympic sled hockey
Birthday: Feb. 4, 1981
Height: 5’9”
Hometown: Portland, Ore.

An injury by an improvised explosive device in 2007 caused this valorous Iraq War vet to lose his left leg above the knee. But nothing could steal Rico Roman’s competitive spirit—which soon found expression in a rough-and-tumble sport that he’s called “football on ice.” Now the sled-hockey player hopes to repeat his team’s 2012 World Championship win in Sochi.

[After my injury], I could not bend my knee at all. It was swollen. I had steel plates and screws. I had a lot of nerve pain. It was really hard to get around throughout the day. I really wanted to just be active again. I have children, I have a wife.

If I didn’t take pain pills, I’d be really irritable; anybody who’s in pain, it’s hard to be happy because you’re hurting. It’d be really easy to be upset about little things I shouldn’t be upset about. And if I took the pain pills, I was like two different people. I’d be really loopy; I wasn’t really myself.

That guided me to weighing the option of doing an amputation.

After my amputation, Operation Comfort, a group that works with disabled veterans who were wounded overseas, asked me to do an MS 150 bike ride: a two-day, 150-mile bike ride from San Antonio to Corpus Christi, Texas. They [provided me with] a three-wheel bike that you peddle with your arms.

It was a great feeling to get out and be active again. Even though I’m missing a leg, to have had something that’s so tough to accomplish meant everything.

Then they asked me if I’d like to try the sport of sled hockey. I didn’t watch hockey and had no interest in it. But I was approached by a veteran, and he said, “At least give it a shot.”

When I tried it out, it was so much fun. But what really drove me to this team is we’re all veterans who had been injured overseas or stateside. We’d all been injured and separated from our platoons or squads. To be a part of that team again was a great feeling.

Coming from a military background, I kind of like the chaos of having so many things to do. I like a busy schedule.

[Not making the national team in 2009–’10] motivated me a bunch because I got to see the level of play. These guys are world-class athletes.

It’s almost a cross between cross-country skiing and then shooting the puck with those arms—not to mention getting knocked over and people trying to knock your head off. This is definitely one of the hardest sports I’ve tried.

Being in a basketball wheelchair or playing wheelchair football, you’re pretty stable. Running was pretty tough. To balance on these little blades and to use your upper body—you’re using so much core. I’d be dog-tired from it.

On the ice, I do a lot of stopping and going. That’s really what kills you in the sport—that initial burst of speed. I’m lucky enough to have a local team here who I work with.

Off the ice, I like to do different activities. I play on The San Antonio Spurs wheelchair basketball team. It’s a different sport from sled hockey, using different muscles, so it’s almost like cross-training. I recently tried wheelchair soccer with the STRAPS program.

I feel that God put me in this position for a reason. I really get a kick out of bringing it to the able-bodied community. Yes, I guess I’m categorized as being disabled, but I’m just as regular as anybody else. I eat the same, I think the same. The only difference is I play my sports a little different, I get around a little different.

I’m here to showcase Paralympic sled hockey to the world, and to inspire other kids and adults to try out the sport and bring awareness to the disabled community.

Image courtesy of USOC.