Paralympian Lonnie Hannah Helping Injured Veterans Through Operation Comfort
SAN ANTONIO, Texas--Capturing a sled hockey gold medal in Salt Lake City six years ago was one of the best moments of Lonnie Hannah's life. Winning another goal medal in Vancouver in 2010 at the age of 46 would also be considered a marquee achievement.
But the essence of the Olympics and Paralympics is really about helping others.
In addition to training for the sled hockey competition in Vancouver, Hannah also coaches and helps guide a program called Operation Comfort, a sled hockey team in San Antonio made up of wounded soldiers recovering from injuries suffered in Iraq.
"This program was started in 2006 as a way for the soldiers to bond together," Hannah said. "They've all been through similar experiences in Iraq and it's really something to see them working together. Some of them have never played hockey before. We have three players from Puerto Rico on the team who have learned the game.
"Though some of the soldiers heal up and eventually move out of San Antonio and off the team, it's just a great experience. A couple of the soldiers had been very quiet when they got here. After a while, they really opened up because they had others to share their experience with."
The team, which plays home games at the Northwoods Ice & Golf Center, competes in tournaments all over the country.
"We've played in Chicago, Park City, Utah, Dallas," Hannah said. "The team really has a great time competing. It's really something to see. They have a bond that can't be broken."
To clarify, sled hockey is played on sleds on ice. Sticks are cut small enough so that they have a pick on the butt end and they use that dig into the ice to push the sled. Then they flip the stick to the blade side when they get to the puck.
Aside from playing a large role in Operation Comfort, Hannah is frantically trying to get ready for a trip to Vancouver. He had briefly retired after the Salt Lake City Games but was lured back by the thrill of competition.
"I really thought I was done and retired after Salt Lake City," Hannah said. "I missed it a lot so I decided to give it one more go-round. I'm 44 now and by the time Vancouver rolls around, I'll be 46. I'm definitely the oldest player on the national team. When the other players train, it means I have to train that much harder.
"But I'm having a great time with it. I'm excited. I'm really looking forward to competing for a gold medal one last time. It's kind of addicting when you get started training again. It's hard to get it out of your system."
When Hannah began working with the wounded soldiers, it was at that point when he knew his career wasn't quite finished yet.
"The soldiers are wounded and recovering and they're giving it everything they have in this sport," Hannah said. "It's so inspiring to be a part of that and watch how they compete. So I talked it over with my family and decided I really wanted to try one last time. My juices are flowing and I'm having a great time. The chance to play for your country one last time is something I'm excited about.
"I noticed in the (Summer) Olympics with the U.S. men's basketball team how the players said winning a gold medal and playing for your country was bigger than anything they had ever been a part of. That's how I feel. To culminate all this hard work and training with a gold medal would be the ultimate feeling."
At 44, there are days when the legs are a little tired. All Hannah has to do is go to practice and watch the soldiers.
"It doesn't take much to get up and go after being with the soldiers," Hannah said. "It's a great motivating tool. They're such great guys, too. For me, I have the best of both worlds."
Story courtesy USAHockey.com