|Rico Roman poses at the NBC Olympics/U.S. Olympic Committee
photo shoot in April 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.
|Sarah Hughes won
the gold medal in
the ladies' figure
at the Salt Lake City
2002 Olympic Winter
Rico Roman, a standout member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team since 2011, never imagined he would find himself immersed in the hockey world if you had asked him 10 years ago. After graduating high school in 2001, Roman joined the U.S. Army, eventually serving as a staff sergeant for nine years. In February 2007, during his third tour in Iraq, his vehicle struck a roadside bomb just one month shy of his scheduled return to the U.S. The Portland, Ore., native was flown to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where he underwent several procedures that eventually resulted in the decision to amputate his left leg. The bombing may have changed the composition of one of Roman’s legs but it never changed his positive outlook. I first met Roman while he was in New York this summer promoting the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
Here are excerpts from his phenomenal and inspiring journey on how he become one of the best sled hockey players in the world today as part of the Journey of Champions series presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance.
Sarah Hughes: So I saw you got a tweet from Lynyrd Skynyrd. Do you have a lot of famous fans?
Rico Roman: No, that was the first time anyone famous has ever tweeted me! I couldn’t sleep that night so I got on Twitter and I was like, ‘Oh my God, Lynrd Skynyrd just gave me a shout out!’ It was great because I had met Lynyrd Skynyrd in 2007 when I first got injured. They were going room to room meeting people. And before my injury I was listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. I had only heard “Sweet Home Alabama,” just that song. And then I heard “Free Bird” and all the other songs on that album this last deployment. So it was really cool to see them bedside when I was injured. They didn’t have to be there, but I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really unbelievable.’ So, the shout-out was just amazing.
SH: So wait, that was the first time you heard their songs? Right before you had met them?
RR: On that deployment. Before I got hurt. I had not heard the other songs, “Freed Bird,” those other songs, before then, at all. So I heard the songs and then I got hurt. And then they came to my hospital bed. They were going to everybody’s room and they just happened to come by my room. I was like, ‘Woah! I just listened to your music this year, and thank you so much for coming.’ And then they gave me a shout-out on Twitter.
|Rico Roman poses for a portrait during the USOC Media Summit
ahead of the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games on Sept. 29,
2013 in Park City, Utah.
SH: You must have made an impact on them — to know that six years later, they’re still actively following your career. I’m not surprised, but it’s still pretty cool!
RR: I could not believe it. Their music has really helped me. Some of those songs, they’re really calming. Sometimes you need to be calmed down, especially in those kinds of places. So it helped me. You know how you go on someone’s iPod and you’re like, ‘Just give me all your music.’ That’s how we do it amongst soldiers. You might like stuff I don’t like and I might like stuff that you don’t like. And you don’t know until you trade with each other — and that’s how I ended up hearing their music.
SH: You have spoken about your strong faith, that you knew were going to be ok, even after finding out some of the extent of your injury. What do you attribute that type of bravery to?
RR: When I first got injured?
RR: I knew I was going to be okay. I was calm. We had trained so hard and we had always trained so hard before these deployments that I knew my guys were going to do the right thing. I was the leader of this patrol. No matter if I’m hurt or not, I can’t be acting like a maniac like, ‘Oh, I’m hurt!!!’ [He makes dramatic motions as he says this.] I had to just stay calm and collected, and handle the situation. And that’s what we did.
SH: Did you ever imagine that you’d be representing your country playing hockey?
SH: Because you’ve never even played before the past few years…
RR: [jumps in] Or watched! Or be in a hockey state like New York or Massachusetts or Wisconsin. You know, you go there and say ‘hockey’ and people ask, ‘which team?’ In Chicago, everyone knows the Blackhawks. You go to Oregon [his home state] and you say ‘hockey’…you know, we have a minor league team, but people aren’t big into hockey in Oregon. I wasn’t really a big hockey fan and I didn’t even want to try it out. I’m so happy, I’m sooo happy, my friend kept nagging me to come and try it out.
SH: Tell me about Operation Comfort.
RR: So they’re a non-profit group in San Antonio. They’re the ones who run our whole veteran team and they helped me get involved in hockey. They help veterans there at the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center [Roman transferred to Brooke Army after first being at Walter Reed] with getting into adaptive sports, whether they’re Paralympic or non-Paralympic. First I started off with handcycling, did a MS 150, a 150-mile bike ride for multiple sclerosis. So you have a non-profit here donating to multiple sclerosis so we can bike ride. You know, it’s amazing.
They also do auto-motivation. You know, unfortunately some of our guys get burnt really bad and they can’t be out there in the sun. It’s just brutal, especially in San Antonio. So they have this garage, and we all get in there and wrench on cars. And it’s really good because we get to rag on each other again.
And that’s what I really liked about the team when I first got on. All different branches — Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines — and we get that same camaraderie again. I was so happy to be a part of that [with handcycling] and that’s how I got involved with sled hockey.
|Rico Roman practices during a training session at ice sled hockey
training venue on March 6, 2014 ahead of the Sochi 2014
Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
SH: Well, it is a bit of a jump to go from handcycling to sled hockey…
RR: I was also doing wheelchair basketball and I was really content with that when one of the guys approached me and asked me to try out sled hockey. I was like, ‘No way. I don’t watch hockey, I’m not from a hockey state. I just don’t want to do it.’ And finally I gave in and it was like football on the ice. I was so fast but I couldn’t stop, so I’d run into the boards. It was just a blast. You know, Texas, it’s 100 degrees outside, so a rink is also the coolest place I could possibly be. My coach suggested that I try out for the national team. I didn’t even know there was a national team. So we go and I try out for the Vancouver Games. I thought, since I was a veteran, I’d walk out there, I make the team, no problem. Not the case. The guys were way fast, they were dedicated to playing the game. So I had to go back to the drawing board, work really hard and I made it the last three seasons. And now here we are, Paralympic year, and hopefully win gold for us in Sochi. So, really excited.
SH: Team USA is the defending Paralympic champion from Vancouver going into Sochi, but you lost the gold to Canada at last year’s world championship.
RR: It was a lucky goal!! It was a [poor] goal, that’s what it was, you know. They didn’t beat us. If anything, they were spooling on the puck and we just let a [poor] goal in. We’re gonna get them. I know it!
SH: Ha! So in case that happens again, do you have some tricks up your sleeve?
RR: Oh yeah! I know the coach does. We have the best coach in the world so we definitely have the ace of spades in our corner.
SH: Not many people are able to represent their country as a serviceman and then as an athlete on the stage you’re on. Do your kids (he has a son and a daughter) understand the significance of this incredible journey of service that you’ve had thus far?
RR: I don’t really think so. Someone asked, ‘Did they think you were going to make the team?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah.’ When I came home and told them I made it, they were like, ‘Yeah, we know.’ Because they see all the work I put in before even trying out — all the gym time, all the ice time, all the practice. I make them come with me, like, ‘Hey, come and skate,’ or, ‘Come and swim.’ I drag them to everything I do. Wheelchair basketball. So they see all this hard work and they think hard works equals getting what you want. But I don’t think they really grasp everything. That’s why I really want to bring them to this Paralympics in Sochi so they can see why I’m gone. Or why daddy had to go to Japan. Then they can see the whole Games and experience it with me.
SH: That would be really wonderful.
SH: Maybe you’ll get a chance to take them to some other events as well.
RR: Whatever I can take them to! My wife will be there too, so she’ll be able to take them. I can’t wait, I really can’t.
You can follow Rico Roman on Twitter here during his journey in Sochi!