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Raising the flag tall

By Joanne C Gerstner | June 13, 2013, 12 p.m. (ET)
Health Calhoun
U.S. Army veteran Heath Calhoun, who was the flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, hopes to make the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team.

For some, the American flag is simply a staple at ballparks, or a nice reminder of place.

When Heath Calhoun sees an American flag, he freely admits he can get emotional. For Calhoun, a retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. and a veteran who lost both his legs while serving in Iraq, being selected as the American flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games remains a singular, spine-tingling moment.

“When you have two prosthetic legs, the first thing you think of is, ‘Please God, make sure I don’t trip out there,’ ” said Calhoun, a member of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team, with a hearty laugh. “I didn’t trip, which is great, but I was super emotional when I held that flag up high. I still am emotional about it, even now.”

Friday is Flag Day and it will be another reminder for Calhoun of what he experienced in Vancouver and in the army.

“When you’re in the military, that flag represents everything you are fighting and training for,” Calhoun said. “When we ran in the morning in the service, and we saw another company, we’d hold up our flag as humanly high as possible, to get it higher than the other company, to show our pride in our company.

“That’s what I felt in Vancouver, in front of 30,000 people — the largest group I’ve ever been in front of,” he added. “I wanted to hold the U.S. flag the highest of anybody to show how proud we all were to be American and how we love to represent our country. That’s the best feeling you can have.”

Calhoun, who turns 34 at the end of June, is now deep in preparations for the upcoming World Cup season and hopefully, for the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. He has come a long way since being introduced to skiing less than a year after his devastating injuries.

He attempted snow skiing for the first time when he attended  his first Winter Sports Clinic in Aspen, Colo., just five months after losing his legs. He became involved with Paralympic sports following nine months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

His goal heading into 2010 was to make his first U.S. Paralympic Team and compete in Vancouver. Calhoun achieved his dream. He did not win a medal, but he still takes great strength and pride from the Vancouver experience.

Now he wants to be on the U.S. Paralympic Team for Sochi and, this time, he also hopes to win a medal. He contributed to the team overall Nations Cup title and earned a bronze medal in giant slalom at the World Cup in Winter Park, Colo. At the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing World Championships held in February in LaMolina, Spain — the last major international competition before the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi — Calhoun had top finishes in the slalom (fifth) and super combined (sixth) events.

Calhoun also had a chance to ski on the Sochi alpine venue at the 2013 IPC Alpine Skiing World Cup Finals in March. He did not medal there but got a taste of what the course will be like and had a chance to acclimate to Sochi.

“It’s going to be good, they’re really making great preparations,” Calhoun said. “The mountains were beautiful, and all the set-ups looked really good. They’ve done a ton of work and have a ton to go from when I was there, but I think it’s going to turn out really nice.”

He is home right now in Tennessee, spending time with his three children and also working on his base conditioning for upcoming snow training in Oregon in late-June and in New Zealand later this summer.

“I can’t wait to get back out on the snow, already looking forward to it,” Calhoun said. “I love summer and love the heat, but I get itchy to get back out on the snow and get back to skiing.”

His first Paralympic experience in Vancouver helped Calhoun further refine his approaches for mono-ski training and racing, as he now looks to take better care of his body. There have also been advances in the mono-ski, with carbon-fiber elements and better seat constructions helping the sleds run cleaner.

“I am working more with a physio now, so I can heal quicker and do rehab better,” Calhoun said. “I became more aware of the value of those things after Vancouver. They can make a difference. Honestly, after a long week of skiing, I am pretty all beat up. You’re hitting gates, you’re getting exhausted from skiing and working out, and that all adds up over time.

“Getting the right treatments can help you bounce back and do more. And that’s something I hope will make me even stronger heading into Sochi by March. I’m really excited for this season, I want to get back to the Paralympics and have another amazing experience like that again.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Joanne C. Gerstner is a freelance contributor for USParalympics.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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