From Marine To Professional Athlete (2/13/13)

Just another day at the office!
Downhill podium in Kimberley, B.C.
Me and my teammate Stephanie Jallen on the chairlift in Kimberley
Talking with teammate Heath Calhoun in Hintertux, Austria
U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team in Hintertux

When I was asked to blog for Team USA, I wondered what I would write.  I looked at and all of the amazing athletes and thought, how do I even rate to be in such good company? Then it hit me: although I am very new to the world of professional sports, I am a professional athlete. Wow that sounds so cool to say that, especially when I look back to my life 10 years ago.  I think for this blog that I will briefly recap my journey over the last 10 years and how I transitioned from Marine to professional athlete.

I spent Sept. 10, 2001, at the Denver Broncos football game with my then 9-year-old daughter Emily. It was the first game in the new stadium and they played the New York Giants. Our lives would dramatically change the very next morning and as the day unfolded, I knew what I needed to do.  I felt this unwavering sense that I wanted to exact some justice on those responsible for the terrorist attacks.  That night sitting with my friends I decided that I was going to re-enlist in the Marine Corps.

I had served from 1993-97 and been honorably discharged, so the next day I began talking to the people at the Denver recruiting command about how to get the ball rolling.  On Nov. 1, 2001, I was sworn back into the Corps and was subsequently sent to Japan.  I returned from Japan in December 2002, checked into my new unit on Jan. 7, 2003, and 20 days later had boots on the ground in Kuwait 23 miles from the Iraqi border.  We breached through lane five of the line of departure less than two months later.  My unit got intermixed with a Marine Corps Reserve unit and our mission was to provide power, and purify water for coalition troops.   That mission would require that we travel to a town called Al Kut and set up a forward camp which would be named Camp Chesty.  It was about 300 miles from where we departed from.  Since we couldn’t do anything until then my platoon was tasked with providing convoy security for logistical convoys pushing north. During these missions I suffered two ruptured discs in my lower back.

Arriving at Camp Chesty we set up our camp and began producing water; however for me it was also the time I began to experience excruciating pain. Long story short I was Medevaced to Kuwait City where the diagnosis was confirmed and the doctors told me I would need surgery.  Well those that know me well also know that I am one stubborn dude. I asked the doctor what it would take to get discharged and sent back to my unit and he said “If you can reach down and touch your toes, I’ll discharge you.” So I did and his response was something to the effect of “That should really hurt.” In all honestly it hurt like heck, but a deal was a deal and he discharged me.  I met up with my unit and we returned home via the USS Cleveland in July 2003.

Over the course of the next two years I tried every form of treatment for the pain: epidural steroid injections, acupuncture, chiropractic, etc. Finally the decision was made to surgically remove the discs and fuse my spine.  The procedure was called Posterior Lumbar Interbody Fusion (PLIF).  On July 17, 2005, my dad and daughter (now almost 14) met me in San Diego and we had dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Old Town.  The next day I had my surgery, when I awoke I remember the doctors asking me to move my toes and feet.  I looked down and they were poking me with needles along the length of me legs and I couldn’t feel it; I also couldn’t move my legs.  I looked over at my dad, who was talking with my surgeon, and I could tell by their faces that something had gone horribly wrong. I told my dad, “I’m paralyzed, dad!”  He said, “I know, son.”  My dad tells me that the next morning I told him that I would be ok and that I would one day go to the Paralympics.  I don’t remember that, but think maybe he watched Remember the Titans one too many times.

This began my journey. I knew I was never going to stay in the Marine Corps and I thought I would be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life.  But the next morning I made the decision to accept the cards I was dealt and move on.  Over the course of the next 10 months I regained some use of my lower legs, and gained feeling to my knees.  I was also medically retired from the Marine Corps.  I returned to Colorado to start my new life. My life would be forever altered.

The medical diagnosis was that something had happened during the surgery and my spinal cord had been damaged.  I couldn’t Dorsi-flex my right leg and I couldn’t Platar-flex my left leg.  In layman’s terms that means I can’t pick up my right foot, and I can’t push down my left I also can’t separate my toes on either foot.  I was a walking paraplegic.  I went into a severe depression and began hiding from my reality by drinking.

In April 2008, I attended the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic on the advice of a fellow wounded veteran by the name of Nick Orchowski.  It would be the catalyst that I needed to find my new passion.  I could now ski again.  Growing up in Colorado I spent many winters skiing with my family in Winter Park.  I now had something that I could be passionate about! While at the clinic I met a coach by the name of Scott Olson.  He worked for the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) for the competition center and the alpine ski team.  He asked me if I wanted to learn how to be a ski racer.  I thought why not.

In December 2008, I attended the race camp in Breckenridge, Colo., with the Hartford Ski Spectacular courtesy of Disabled Sports USA. Directly after this camp was my first competition in Copper Mountain, Colo., where I finished in last place. But I had that competitive bug, and I wanted to be better.  I skied for the 2008-09, 2009-10 and the 2010-11 seasons part-time on the weekends for the NSCD.  But I knew I wanted to pursue this full time.  It meant leaving my full-time job and the financial security I had, and begin living on my Veterans Affairs retirement stipend.  Wow, what a huge step I was about to take.  In March 2011, I asked my boss if I could take the winters off and only work the summers.  He couldn’t afford to not have an Operations Manager on staff, so I put in my two weeks’ notice.  I had now either made a huge mistake or the best decision of my life. I contacted the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund and asked if they could help me out financially and they became my biggest and best sponsor.  Karen Guenther is the Founder and President of this organization and folks let me tell you she is amazing.

I believe it was the best decision! I transferred to the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club (AVSC) to train full-time under the guidance of Barrett Stein and the U.S. Paralympic Developmental Program. The 2011-12 season was my first year training full time and proved to be a break-through year for me.  I gained my first-ever podium in January 2012 at U.S. tech nationals in Waterville Valley, N.H., capturing a bronze in giant slalom (GS). I also qualified for World Cup in super giant slalom (SG) and raced in my first World Cup in Winter Park, Colo.  Later that year I would add a silver in GS, and a bronze in slalom (SL) in Park City. Finally I would add two golds at U.S. speed nationals on my home hill in Aspen in downhill (DH) and SG.  I also finished by adding another gold in at the NorAm races also in Aspen in DH and a silver in SG.  Three golds, a silver and a bronze is a spectacular year, but I wasn’t content.

I spent the summer at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., working with the amazing training staff there. Amanda Wittenmyer and Jeremy Gough were my strength and conditioning coaches and let me tell you they are fabulous.  I went from 224 pounds to 190 and also went from squatting 40 kilos to 120 Kilos, my cardio conditioning improved and I just got stronger physically, mentally and emotionally. I also began doing something I thought I would never be able to do again and that was run.  Jeremy had me on the treadmill two to three days a week. The whole staff there is amazing and the results have shown this season.

In July 2012, I was named to the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team as a member of the B Team.  It was another milestone.  I also was invited to attend camps in Mount Hood, Ore., Valle Nevado, Chile, and Hintertux, Austria.  All of this on-hill snow time proved to be tremendously helpful to me.

In September 2012, I attended the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers run in NYC with an organization called Hope For the Warriors.  I brought along with me my dad and daughter (now 21) and we ran the 5K race.  Yet another milestone.  We also went to the 9-11 memorial and had an emotional look back on the 11 years since the attacks.

This season has been a year of personal bests in SL, GS, SG and DH.  I have three silvers so far, one in SG in Winter Park and two in DH in Kimberley, B.C.  I also went to France to compete in the Europa Cup Finals as a member of the U.S. Europa Cup Speed Team.  While there I was also named to represent the U.S. at the upcoming IPC Alpine Skiing World Championships in La Molina, Spain.  I leave to go there on February 15, and next month’s blog will showcase my time there.

I realize this has been a long post and thank you for taking the time to read it.  As you can imagine, 10-plus years is difficult to summarize.  Go Team USA!