Scott Winkler (Grovetown, Ga.) and Carlos Leon (N. Lauderdale, Fla.) never imagined they'd have the opportunity of a lifetime to compete at the 2008 Paralympic Games. And, neither thought their path to success in Beijing would bring them to Birmingham. Winkler and Leon are injured veterans who are training at Lakeshore Foundation as part of the United States Olympic Committee's (USOC) Veterans Paralympic Performance Program (VP3).
"This has been a big lifestyle change for me. I've picked up my whole life and moved to a new city where I don't know anyone and don't have the kind of family support I did before," said Leon, 24, who originally hails from South Florida and moved to Birmingham in October 2007. "But, it feels good to know there are people here at Lakeshore Foundation who are willing to help me and invest in me to help me perform at the highest level I can. It gives me the confidence I need going forward because I feel like I've got a great support system here - people who believe that I'm going to succeed. It also adds a little bit more pressure, but that's a good weight to have on my shoulders."
The VP3 is the newest part of the USOC Paralympic Military Program, supporting talented, committed, severely injured veterans in their effort to represent the United States of America at a Paralympic Games. Through VP3, these veteran-athletes demonstrate to themselves and others the will and abilities that inspire others with physical disabilities and, indeed, all Americans.
"Lakeshore Foundation has a long history of serving Paralympic athletes and we are pleased to once again work with the United States Olympic Committee and extend the services offered at our training site to our nation's veterans," said Jeff Underwood, Lakeshore Foundation President.
Lakeshore Foundation is one of six sites hosting VP3, with each site dedicated to a specific sport. Lakeshore Foundation is home to the wheelchair track and field athletes - both Leon and Winkler compete in the throwing events - while the other sites focus on cycling, swimming, sitting volleyball, alpine skiing, cross country skiing and biathlon. Through VP3, both Leon and Winkler are provided with an array of housing, training and sport performance services at no cost to them. Lakeshore Foundation is supplementing the cost of all the services provided to both athletes.
"VP3 is not only an opportunity for Lakeshore Foundation to support two talented veteran-athletes working to achieve their dreams of Paralympic success," said Jill Collins, Director of Recreation & Athletics. "This also gives us a chance to showcase the level of service we're able to provide to resident athletes. In our capacity as an official U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Site, Lakeshore Foundation is providing housing, meals, training facilities, coaching and sport performance services similar to what these athletes would be able to get at any of the other U.S. Olympic training facilities around the country."
The athletes recognize the incredible edge they've been given in having access to these services as they prepare for the Paralympics.
"Being a part of VP3 and being here at Lakeshore Foundation is a huge help," said Winkler. "I get to train with a great coach and one of the best facilities in the country."
Chad James, Assistant Track & Field Coach at Samford University, is the coach that is helping Leon and Winkler reach the pinnacle of their sport. James has been coaching at Samford University for six seasons and an old friendship with U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Head Coach Troy Engle helped connect James to Lakeshore Foundation and VP3.
Winkler, 34, joined the Army a few years after high school and became a food service technician. He left the Army in 1999, but realized it was where he felt be belonged, so he returned two years later. In 2003, Winkler fell off an ammunitions truck in Tikrit, Iraq resulting in paralysis. He was exposed to adapted sports shortly after his injury, but didn't learn about the throwing events until 2006. That year, he was introduced to the discus and shot put at a USOC Paralympic Military Sports Camp and says he didn't think he would ever be good enough to compete at the Paralympics.
"I didn't really even want to go to the sports camp, but the coach from my wheelchair basketball team made me. I had never thrown a discus or a shot put before in my life and I didn't think I would be good enough," said Winkler, who only lives in Birmingham part-time and drives 283 miles, each way, to and from Augusta, Georgia every week. "I ended up going and when I tried the events for the first time, I was told I was pretty good and that I might have a shot at making the Paralympic team."
Winkler has quickly experienced international success in his newly adopted sport. He is the current world record holder in the F54 shot put and won one bronze and one gold medal at the 2007 Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Since Winkler has taken the throwing world by storm, Troy Engle says Winkler's got a great "shot" at winning gold in China and his ability to train at Lakeshore Foundation as part of VP3 is a big reason why.
"Without the support of Lakeshore Foundation and its support of VP3, Scott and Carlos would not be in the position they are to contend for a podium spot in Beijing," said Engle. "The support our guys are getting at Lakeshore Foundation is a perfect fit for their preparation for the Games. And, it's not just facilities, but the total support from the performance enhancement team that includes sports medicine, strength & conditioning, coaching and administrative support."
Leon has also had a meteoric rise through the ranks of the world's elite seated throwers. After surviving a yearlong combat tour in Iraq, he was injured in a diving accident in 2005 while still serving in the Marine Corps and as a result is now an incomplete quadriplegic. Just a few short months later, Leon was already on the field learning about the throwing events at another USOC Paralympic Military Sports Camp.
"I really took to throwing because it's an individual sport and I liked the idea of having the challenges and responsibilities all fall on my shoulders," said Leon. "I am my own ‘one-man team' and when it comes down to performing on the big stage, I know that the success or failure all falls on me."
Leon broke the world record in the F51 discus at the 2007 U.S. Paralympics Track & Field Nationals and carried the momentum of that success to the Parapan American Games later that summer. Leon left Rio de Janeiro with one silver medal (discus) and one bronze medal (shot put), then came back to the U.S. and relocated his life to Birmingham in order to put himself in the best position possible for success in Beijing.
"I wouldn't be successful without Lakeshore Foundation and the VP3 program," said Leon. "I'm now fully immersed in my training. I spend about 16 to 20 hours a week just training, which includes throwing practice, strength and conditioning workouts and various other cross-training activities. Just as important as the facilities and the time I'm able to put in, I have the support I need from the staff here at Lakeshore Foundation to train at the highest level I can."