Journey Of Champions presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance: Steve Mesler Chats With Josh Sweeney

By Steve Mesler, 2010 Four-Man Bobsled Olympic Champion | Oct. 17, 2013, 5:30 p.m. (ET)

 
Steve Mesler is a three-
time Olympian and 2010
Olympic gold medalist 
in four-man bobsled.
Watch as Josh Sweeney answers questions submitted by fans on Twitter!

What would you do if you lost both your legs? Really — think about it for a few seconds. How would you react? What would you make of your life?

In October 2009, U.S. Marine sergeant Joshua Sweeney’s platoon encountered a road side bomb in Nowzad, Afghanistan and the result for Josh was the loss of both of his legs. Not long after, he found himself in a San Antonio clinic rehabbing and realizing he would be faced with somewhere between a few and an infinite amount of new challenges — not the least of which were he wouldn’t be able to play hockey anymore.

Or so he thought.

Josh is now a standout member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team as the team prepares for the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia in March 2014. He’s a standout guy in a group of standout guys. He’s a Classroom Champions Athlete Mentor and he’s a guy every person out there should want to learn from.

I had a chance to sit down with Josh via Skype and ask him some questions that this old Olympian was really curious about. We talked about his transition into sled hockey, what it’s like to train and eat when you’ve got no legs, and what his current version of success looks like!

Steve Mesler: How quickly did you realize, after Afghanistan, that you wanted to get into sports?

Josh Sweeney: Honestly, it was really quickly. As soon as I was injured one of the first things I thought of was that I wasn't going to be able to play hockey anymore. It wasn't something that I'd really been thinking about before but it popped into my head right away.

One of the main reasons I chose to come down to San Antonio for rehabilitation was the many programs they had and all the different things that they had going on that I knew I'd be able to get involved with.

As soon as I got down there, every Friday they have a game that they play — whether it's wheelchair basketball or what they consider wheelchair polo. They were just supposed to be fun and I started playing those and my competitive spirit came out and I really just started getting into it. That's when I knew I had to get back into playing sports.

SM: What does the transition look like? What happens when you say — “Hey, I want to do this." What happens?

JS: We have a lot of great different coordinators down here in San Antonio, and in Texas, that actively seek out individuals they think would be good for sport. Basically there's a recreational therapist that works at the Center for the Intrepid and from the time you get there until the time you leave, they're bugging you every week saying, "you wanna come do this, you wanna come do that?"

SM: They're just recruiting all the time then? They're like college recruiters?

JS: Exactly! They understand that we have the drive and we want to do something. We have the maturity to take something to that next level so they really look at us as prospects for any sport. It was really just going out and as soon as the therapist says "Yes! He's good to do stuff," they'll bug you until you do something.

SM: How long is the transition to make the national team and how did that work for you?

JS: I was a pretty special case. Because I understood the game of hockey it was really just figuring out how to use the sled and the sticks. Learning how to propel myself and shoot with the same two hands and once I got the hang of that, it was easy. My first season with the national team was 2011, so around two years I guess.

SM: Amazing, man. What have you found is the biggest difference in your training now?

JS: The biggest thing is that I have to treat my arms and shoulders just like any other athlete would treat their legs and their hips. At first it's really hard.


SM: That sounds brutal!

JS: Yeah — it’s very tough on your joints. My first year playing with the national team my joints were screaming. Every weekend camp, every tournament. My elbows were hurting and it's just because they’re not used to that much stress. They're not used to having to handle that much load. Now three years into it if I get sore it's because I really put my body through the ringer that day.

SM: Since you're only about four years away from your injury, are you still finding yourself every six months or a year noticeably more coordinated or noticeably better?

JS: I'm really starting to see myself plateau at this point and having to really look into other ways to get better. I only get so much ice time so I've gone ahead and purchased a ton of stuff for off-ice training.

I'm really looking to find ways to fine-tune my coordination on the ice now. But as far as big noticeable gains, it's definitely starting to dwindle down. There's always room to improve — there’s no doubt there's always things I can improve. I just need to start using everything in my book to be able to reach the level that I want to be at.

SM: Fine-tuning that kind of coordination is something I wouldn’t have thought of, interesting.

Ok — the next question is something I'm really curious about — diet! How much do you weigh now?

JS: I'm usually right around 138.

SM: So, without sounding like a smart-alec here — where is your calorie intake these days and what is it relative to what it used to be considering your newfound weight?

JS: I'd say it's about half, or so. My biggest difference now is I really have to focus on what I'm putting in my mouth. I can't eat anything like I used to. Before, if I wanted to go out and grab an In and Out cheeseburger, I'd go eat one and not worry about it. Whereas now, if I have an In and Out cheeseburger I'm already thinking about what I can't eat later so I'm not bringing in too many calories. At first I was working a lot with my calorie intake and my output at the same time. But now I've gotten to the point where I'm just eating chicken and veggies, turkey and salad.

SM: What do you think your overall calorie count is now?

JS: I'm probably 800-1,000 calories per day.

SM: So you're probably looking at about a third of what you would have been eating.

JS: It's funny because those are all just clean calories now and sometimes it's hard. I'm just choking down more and more vegetables as I'm trying to get those calories in. On top of eating clean I have my protein shakes and I just try to make sure that I'm evening everything out.


SM: You're really going through the same system everyone else is going through it seems. You just have to be mindful you're not going to burn the same calories you used to and that you're not the same body size you used to be?

JS: Yeah — at first, being injured is really hard because you don't realize how much you're not burning calories. So then my weight was fluctuating a lot at first. I would kind of forget that I couldn't just eat what I wanted so I'd gain 10-12 pounds really fast! I'd sit back and think, ouch!

Now I'm finally at that point where I know what I need to eat and what I need to stay away from. I think I have it even more fine-tuned now than I ever did before.

SM: Makes total sense and hopefully you don't get any backlash from In and Out Burger!

Now, you've been playing for over two years now. What do you think you'd be doing if you didn't find sled hockey?

JS: Honestly, I'd be in school right now. I don't want to use hockey as an excuse that I haven't gone back to school yet, but I know the kind of person I am. I'm really an individual that I'm either all or nothing. I'm either putting all my time into something or I can't even attempt it. I know that about myself so I'm waiting until after this year. We're going to be moving up to Portland, Ore., and getting settled there and I'd like to get back to school at that point.

SM: There will be a very happy Classroom Champions teacher in Portland when they hear that!

JS: Yeah — we’re excited to get up there. Everything about that place I really like.

SM: And now you're going to get the same two questions I ask every Olympian or Paralympian I interview for Team USA. You ready?

JS: Bring it on!

SM: What does success look like to you?

JS: Success is, hmmm, it's really hard to say what it looks like to me. I'd love to be able to say it looks like a gold medal. But it can't be that easy.

It's really that I'm looking at each month individually: Am I meeting my goals? Am I bettering myself? What am I doing to help my team?

And in the end I'd love to say we're going to walk away with that gold medal but if we don't and I've done everything that I can to be in my peak physical condition, get my hands as steady and as ready as I can for the Games, then I think that is what success looks like to me. This year.

But it's really kind of a complicated question to answer just because there are so many levels to my training... the easy answer? A gold medal.

SM: Haha — it’s not meant to be an easy question!

Ok — now for the second question — what are the three things that an athlete needs to do to reach the success you just talked about?

JS: I would say that the three most important factors for an athlete to reach their success are diet, sport specific training and general physical well-being.

As far as diet, it can be hard to do if you've got a family and friends that you're close with who are always going to be looking for you to go out and eat food that you shouldn't be. A lot of my friends know not to even ask me if they want to go by Burger King or something. You just have to be aware of it and really understand your boundaries.

As far as sport-specific training, that's a big aspect for myself. As far as sled hockey goes I'm finding all the ways to improve my skill sets. Whether it be stick handling or working with my teammates — focusing on that is really important.

And as far as general well-being, it can be hard some days to really kind of pull back and take that rest day but it's really needed. Sometimes you've gotta go hard and put yourself through the ringer and other days you've got to dial it back and work on the small things that will help you on those days when you're hurtin!

SM: All of those are so important Josh, well said. And thanks so much for your time and insight. You can teach us all a thing or two about persevering and re-focusing to get the job done. Good luck heading into Sochi buddy!

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