While serving with the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division in Afghanistan in 2009, Marc Dervaes' convoy was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, resulting in the loss of his right arm.
Marc Dervaes picked up some colorful souvenirs from his first season as an elite, competitive snowboarder: three gold medals and a collection of purple bruises.
Dervaes, a retired U.S. Army infantryman, had come to the U.S. Paralympics Snowboard National Team late in life after 18 years of service, three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and a rocket-propelled grenade attack on his final tour that took much of his right arm.
Now 40, he realizes he probably should have been in better condition for his first season of racing last year on the United States of America Snowboard Association and world cup tours.
He won three times in his upper-limb category but also took a beating.
He cracked four ribs, suffered a sprained back and had two concussions, and it left him wondering if it was worth staying on the U.S. team.
“I wasn’t expecting it to take off as fast as it did,” he said of his budding snowboarding career. “I thought I was just going to be representing one of the adaptive centers at Copper (Mountain, in Colorado), and then it just took off like a speeding bullet and I was hanging on by my fingertips. I wasn’t really prepared last year. I wasn’t physically ready and I found myself in the emergency room three times.”
It almost turned him away from the sport.
“I was going with the notion of not racing this year just because of all the injuries I sustained last year and I had to go through all that recovery,” he said.
That’s when his wife, Michaela, stepped in to give him a pep talk.
“She’s actually the reason that I continued to race,” he said. “She just motivated me.”
So, over the past offseason Dervaes put more time into a conditioning regimen, switched to some better equipment — stepping up from a free-riding board to a top-notch racing board — and came out much better prepared for his second season.
So far, it looks like a wise choice.
Over the last weekend in January, Dervaes won two gold medals at the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Snowboarding World Cup at Big White Ski Resort in Canada. The week before, Dervaes won gold and silver medals at the world cup event at Copper Mountain.
Winning at Big White was especially gratifying, because he was injured last year and came in fourth in his final race at that venue.
“I kind of had my sights set on performing well (there),” he said. “So my coaches and I talked and that’s what I did. I just leaned forward and got it done.”
Though Dervaes is a member of the U.S. Paralympics national team, he won’t be competing in Sochi with many of his teammates. There is not yet a classification in the Games for upper-limb impaired snowboarders, which of course is disappointing for Dervaes.
But with better conditioning and equipment and the confidence he’s developed, he now has his sights set on competing at least four more years in the hopes the classification will be added for the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Though Dervaes is new to competitive snowboarding, he’s been sliding down mountains since 1989 when he was a freshman in high school in Pennsylvania. He grew up skateboarding and played lacrosse all through high school, then joined the Army after graduation.
He spent 10 years in Germany and got in plenty of time snowboarding the Alps. There was only one year in the Army when he wasn’t able to get some boarding in.
Dervaes, a Sgt. 1st Class, had deployments of 12 and 16 months to Iraq and was in his fourth month of a tour in Afghanistan in 2009 with the 4th Infantry Division when his convoy was ambushed. An RPG came through the windshield of the Humvee he was riding in, knocking him unconscious. After he came to, a second RPG hit the vehicle, again knocking him out. When he awoke, he realized a good portion of his right arm was gone.
Eventually, Dervaes had surgeries to remove portions of the remaining arm above the elbow.
Having been active his entire life, it didn’t take long for Dervaes to decide he’d continue to live life his way.
“About six months after my injury is when I started to realize that feeling sorry for myself wasn’t going to get me anywhere,” he said. “So I’m back to doing just about everything that I used to do, even better.”
With a prosthetic arm, he’s been able to continue as a bowhunter and rifle hunter, be a whitewater kayaker and mountain biker and, of course, snowboard. But he never had any designs on becoming an elite-level athlete. It happened by accident.
After retiring from the Army, he began to work with the Wounded Warrior Project to take disabled vets on outdoor adventures, including skiing and snowboarding, and at one point took a group to Crested Butte in Colorado. Dervaes made some friends at the resort, who pointed him toward competing on the USASA circuit.
“And I was killing it,” he recalls.
So he was approached by U.S. coach Miah Wheeler, who told him that if he kept it up, there would likely be a spot for him on the U.S. national team. Soon, that’s exactly where he was.
Now, at 40, he’s in with the nation’s top Paralympic snowboarders, including Tyler Burdick, Keith Gabel, Dan Monzo, Mike Shea and Evan Strong, all who will compete in Sochi in the men’s race for athletes lower limb impairment race.
“I’ve been riding almost longer than some of these guys have been alive,” said Dervaes, laughing. But he’s bonded with his younger teammates.
Now, he’s got his eyes focused on the next Paralympic Winter Games, and also on keeping himself safe enough to keep competing.
The years as an infantryman took their toll. His knees, ankles and joints all ache from the pounding they took from all the weight he had to carry and all the training and action he was in. He has to take special care before and after snowboarding sessions to take care of his legs.
And, over the course of three combat tours, he suffered seven concussions. Added to the two he had last year while competing, he’s now taking more precautions and switching to a much better, safer helmet “to protect my nugget a little better.”
But he’s feeling like he has a lot to look forward to.
“The cycle just keeps going,” he said. “Snowboarding in the winter, kayaking in the spring and summer, and then bowhunting and rifle hunting in the fall. I don’t make a lot, but I make enough where I can enjoy my life.”
And pick up some occasional shiny souvenirs along the way.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for USParalympics.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.