BY JON LUJAN
Well I have been back from Sochi for a few days now and I wanted to share with you what my Paralympic experience was all about. It can be summed up in one word: AMAZING!
However, I will go into the details and try to sum up exactly how epic it truly was. First of all let me recap that going into the Games I had some pretty significant injuries that almost kept me from participating at all. Luckily, as I said before, I had a superb medical team in Aspen that got me somewhat healed up.
I left the U.S. on February 28 for Team Processing in Munich, Germany; I think all of us were pretty jazzed to be getting outfitted with our Team USA apparel and also to get the ball rolling. Team processing was so very cool; we got to try on all of the Nike and Ralph Lauren village wear and also the Nike podium gear, as well as the Ralph Lauren Opening and Closing Ceremony gear. To be actually putting all of the gear gave me goose bumps. Holy moly, I really made it! The reality of things starting sinking in and it was really cool to go through with my teammates Jamie Stanton and Stephanie Jallen. When we were trying on the podium gear I wondered how many of us would actually get to wear it for real. I would get my answer to that one very soon. The amount of gear we got was really staggering, so much so that it had to be sent over in waves and we had to put priority tags on our bags numbered 1-10. Yes, you heard me correctly: 1-10. For me, 1-4 were ski bags and ski gear, 5 was podium gear, 6 was my Nike village wear, 7 was Opening and Closing Ceremony gear (mine had to have alterations to it) and 8 was the Ralph Lauren village wear. I didn’t need 9 and 10. Whew, that’s a lot of gear!
The next morning we had a charter to Sochi with the sled hockey team and the members of the alpine team who were there. The flight was pretty exciting and when we landed in Sochi, our Russian hosts greeted us graciously. It was kind of comical all of the luggage we had on that first flight; bags 1-3 were guaranteed to be on that flight and the rest would follow in waves. But we made sure our gear got there then it was loaded onto a truck and would meet us at the welcome center. The drive from the airport to the welcome center was my first glimpse of Sochi; there were lots of new structures and elevated train tracks. It was pretty cool to see all of the Paralympic signs and whatnot around town. The welcome center was where we got our credentials, went through security screening, as did our bags. We were now in the “bubble,” or as we Marines refer to it, a sterile zone. The gist of this was that since each of us was already screened we could go from one bubble to the next without having to be re-screened. It was actually a smooth and efficient process and I give the Russian police and military forces much credit. Once we were completely done with screening it was time to transit to the mountain cluster where we would be for the next few weeks of competition.
The drive to the mountain cluster showed just how much transformation this region had undergone. The highway that we traveled on was built just for official vehicles traveling to and from the mountain cluster. While I was super tired and the 10-hour difference was taking a toll on my body it was really spectacular to just take in the beauty of this place. Upon arriving at the mountain village it began to sink in again that I was actually here to compete for myself, my country and represent the Paralympic Movement. We got settled and had a team meeting to go over training schedules and plans of attack. Since I wasn’t doing downhill I had a day off and then would start off freeskiing for the first day and getting a feel for the snow and learning the terrain and hill.
My first event was to be the super-G and I would spend a few days running training courses and getting back up to speed. I was still quite tentative about how my leg was going to hold up and also just starting to feel comfortable skiing at speeds above 60 mph. To say I was gun shy would be an understatement; the last race I crashed in had led to my injury and I was just hoping that I wouldn’t have too much fear about running full speed. Well the first day training super-G went pretty good, I was able to get up to speed and felt pretty comfortable; my leg, however, was already questionable. Every time I took a right turn I could feel that the strength just wasn’t fully there. I would spend a lot of time with the trainers and doctors in the next two weeks trying to get through the races safely and hopefully without further damage.
Wow, as I type this and look back it’s really hard to try and let all of you know everything that went into it. It was a few weeks of extreme highs, lows and just feeling immense pride and joy at being there. I know I’m probably going to leave out many of the details, but I’m going to just try and touch on the highlights.
Ok so on March 5 we as a team were to nominate our representative for the Opening Ceremony flag bearer as well as a voting delegate. I was stunned to learn that I was that nominee and eventually would get the honor of carrying the flag for our delegation! (See my previous blog entry for much more detail about the process.)
The big day had finally come, Opening Ceremony. I was able to have a few interviews with many different news outlets about the honor and now it was time to shine and wave Old Glory. We dressed in our Opening Ceremony attire and made our way down to Fisht Stadium in the coastal cluster and I had the honor of meeting U.S. Olympic Committee Chairman Larry Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun and then did a quick interview with Lewis Johnson of NBC Sports. It was then that I revealed the pins that I wore under the buttons of my Opening Ceremony sweater. A Marine Sergeant Chevron pin and a 9-11 pin that says “Spirit of 9-11” and “Let’s Roll.” After all 9-11 was what had put me on the path that I now am on.
Now the time had come, we were marshaled to a staging area and waited our turn to walk out and represent the United States. I was given the flag and we waited our turn to enter the arena. I already knew that my mom, dad and daughter were in attendance and that many of my friends and family back in the U.S. were looking on. Was I nervous? Not really at all, I was just hoping that I would be able to wave the flag with the honor it deserves. WOO This truly is a huge honor. Not only is a tremendous achievement to become a Paralympian, but now I was also in another elite group of those that had the honor of being selected as the flag bearer (a yet more elite group). We all walked out together as one country, one group of elite athletes and one of proud Americans. It was such an amazing moment in my life. I had a hard time putting it into words after the fact but as I look back now and soak it all in it was the culmination of years of dedication hard work and love. As we watched the Opening Ceremony and the Games were open, the mood was electric. I felt ready to compete!
The next day was the downhill race and I went up on the hill early in the morning to train super-G. I was on my second run of the course and felt something weird in my right leg and had to pull out of the course. I decided to call it and not train anymore and headed to the bottom of the hill to watch the DH race. The race was a rodeo for most of the competitors to say the least; and some of my teammates had terrible crashes and it was sickening to watch on video from the bottom. It’s something all of us know is a possibility; but I had to say it sort of shook me up. These are my friends and nobody likes to see someone being carted down the hill let alone in a helicopter.
Super-G race day was upon me, and believe it or not when I was in the starting gate I wasn’t nervous. I was focused, I felt well prepared and had the course memorized. I started a tradition at big races; before the start I carry some of my nephew’s ashes in a small zip lock bag and I take a pinch out and say a prayer and put them on my boot cuff so that as I go down the hill, he is sprinkled on the course. Today was no different; it had become a routine and just saying that prayer put me at ease. I got the 10-second beep and said in my head “let’s go, Tibby (Tiberius James Schleicher was my nephew and he died of SIDS 3/14/2006), me and you down this hill,” 5, 4, 3, and pushed out of the start gate. I got up to speed right away and just went into my zone. Gate four: on the gate press forward, five-seven: bang those gates, attack, good body position, just let the skis run. On it went, here comes 16 set up for the air and over the air. I kept telling myself at this point get aero, but when I turned at 15 my knee didn’t quite get the angle I wanted. Get aero, what’s wrong with my knee? Get aero, uh-oh here comes lake jump; attack the gates on the pitch. Over the jump, three gates on the pitch, I’m too direct but if I drive and angulate I can make the right footer…oh no something popped and I couldn’t make the turn. Ok, slow down from 119 kph safely, coming to a stop and flop! I fell over and couldn’t get up. Luckily one of my coaches was there to help me up. I was two-thirds of the way down the course, darn it. But what was that pop? I was disappointed yes, but I decided to go up into the stands and find my family and the most amazing thing happened; I took a couple of pictures with them but the rest of the crowd started coming down to take pictures with me and my family. I decided to stay for about 45 minutes and take pictures; just being a good ambassador. It was very cool. I watched the rest of the race and headed back to the all too familiar training staff.
Doc De Luigi was doing tests on the knee and found it to be a torn meniscus; it popped and the knee felt much better. I got soft tissue work and prepared for my next race, slalom. I had four days to train and get back up to speed, and also follow the RICE program; rest, ice, compression, elevation. I got to be good friends with the Game Ready ice machine; it allows all four of these to be met at once. 30 minutes on, 2 hours off for most of the next 3 days. I also got some quality training, but never more than three runs. If I was there to improve my skiing it was the wrong place; the runs were just to familiarize myself with the snow and types of hill conditions we would see. During those days I got to spend time with my family down in Rosa Khutor, and also see a few medal ceremonies.
Slalom day was upon us, or should I say slalom night. I went up to the top of the mountain and ran the training course and felt very good. Next I went down and inspected the course and felt very confident about running this course. 5 gates, then a combo on a steep pitch, 7 gates then a delay, 1 gate then combo, 7 gates then a combo, 5 gates a combo, 8 gates a combo, 5 gates a delay, 3 gates finish. ‘I’ve got this,’ I said to myself. I went through my pre-race ritual and Tibby and I pushed out of the start. Four gates and I got in the back seat and didn’t make the next gate, this time I couldn’t blame anything other than bad skiing and poor body position. UGHHH. I went again to see my family and get their comfort more than anything.
It was so comforting knowing they were there for me and, as always, I leaned on them for support. I kind of played off the importance of them being there but, trust me, it sure calmed me down to have their love and support. I was proud because all of my teammates kept saying: “Your family was on TV again” or “We love your family.” I loved sharing them with my team.
The next day I got to watch my roommate and buddy Heath Calhoun get silver in super combined. Unfortunately I had to watch from the team lounge on TV as I was getting yet another treatment. But I think I might have been just as elated as he was. When he finally got back to the room I gave him a great big hug followed by a few things that probably are not appropriate for repeating.
March 15, GS day, I was super excited and ready. This was the discipline which got me to Sochi, and I was ready to rip! I followed my pre-race routine, one minute. Kevin Jardine said “You’ve got to attack now, there’s no coming from behind on the second run.” Thirty seconds, and at the 10-second mark Tibby and I were ready to rip. In the zone, just ski 5, 4, out the gate. As soon as I hit the first right-footed turn I knew I was going to have to change my tactics; the knee wasn’t working like it should — too much pain when I lengthened the femur. Ok, I’ve got this, just keep attacking, oops got little late on 12, no problem quick turn into 13 and I’m back on track. Here comes the lake jump pitch right footer, left footer, right footer; POP, I grabbed my knee and crashed into the next gate. Oh no, this is not good; bad pain, I tried to get up but it wasn’t happening. Oh man this hurts, someone skied up and asked if I needed help, all I could say was yes. Rammer skied up and asked what it was and I just said ‘knee.’ I was so disappointed; all I needed from you was 1½ more runs knee. I was loaded into a sled and taken down the hill. This was not how I wanted Sochi to end for me; I knew I could get a top-10 today. I went through the finish and tried to give a thumbs up to let my family know I was ok. Out of the finish into an ambulance and gone, I had not idea where they were taking me but kept trying to say take me to the poly trauma clinic in the athletes’ village; where I knew a team doc could meet me easier. The ambulance stops and the doors open and who’s there? Emily!! That girl, I didn’t know how she did it but she had somehow gotten to where the ambulance had stopped. My team docs were also there and convinced them to take me to the athletes’ village. Emily tried to jump in the passenger seat but since it was in a sterile area she couldn’t come. Bless that girl’s heart, I have to admit at that point I was so proud of her.
I arrived at the clinic and was examined by three Russian doctors who were pretty thorough. They were trying to get off my left boot and just unbuckled it and started tugging. I was like wait! I showed them that you had to undo the inner laces of the boot liner first. However one of them had a badge on that said surgeon and I noticed on the door going in that it said surgery. Thank goodness Dr. Weinstein got there or I think they might have had me in surgery. They did an MRI and found the torn meniscus, a torn LCL and a partial tear of the ACL. Dr. Weinstein said he could do the surgery back in the states when we returned and I agreed. I got a set of crutches and off I went, my first order of business was to text my family and let them know I was ok (thanks, Samsung, for the free phone to allow this).
That night I went to watch Calhoun get his silver and he invited me and my family back to a toasting that was hosted by BP where we celebrated. The next day was packing day and Closing Ceremony. The men packed up early and headed to the coastal cluster since the women were still racing GS. Closing ceremony was just as spectacular as opening. The Russian national anthem was sung by a children’s choir and was absolutely beautiful. It will stay with me forever and anytime I hear their national anthem I will remember Closing Ceremony. Our trip home was uneventful and it was sure nice to get back on U.S. soil.
As I sit here and finish writing this I am so proud to have been given the opportunity to compete for Team USA, so blessed to have been chosen to carry the flag in Opening Ceremony, and hopeful that my upcoming surgery is successful.
Finally I want to thank each and every one of my supporters that have helped along the way. Today is March 26, 2014, and I should be racing at U.S. nationals, but there are 1,442 days until Opening Ceremony in PyeongChang, South Korea, and I plan on being a medal contender! GO TEAM USA!!!