Veterans find success in Nordic skiing

By Mike Molina | March 18, 2013, 10 a.m. (ET)
Jeremy Wagner
Jeremy Wagner is transitioning from the U.S. Army Reserves to international Nordic skiing. In January, he competed at the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis.

It was an accident not unheard of for a young combat Veteran.

In June 2008, Omar Bermejo had recently returned from his fourth deployment to Iraq. The then 27 year-old Marine Corps sergeant was racing through life, searching for the familiar rush of fear and adrenaline that had been fueled by bullets and IEDs only months before. He bought a motorcycle with the money he'd received as a bonus for his service.

The curve, the gravel, a sense of invincibility, all caused him to lose control of the bike, he said. He slammed into a guardrail nearly severing his arm between the bike and the metal. Many surgeries later, doctors would amputate his arm at the shoulder.

“The day to forget and the day my life changed,” Bermejo said. “It’s true when they say that one of the ways to appreciate life to the fullest, is to almost die.”

In the aftermath of his changed life he became depressed and hopeless. “I was pretty down after my accident,” he said. The once fit Marine says he gained weight and felt out of shape. He decided to use some of his benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and visited a nearby VA Medical Center.

“They were awesome, always letting me know I’m not by myself,” he said. “I knew it’s not over. My time here is not over yet.”

He remembers a visit to a wing of hospitalized Veterans all of them amputees.

“There was this guy who lost his leg above the knee. He was telling me ‘Don’t give up. Don’t cash in. Give it your all.’”

Today, Bermejo is a competitive Nordic skier with hopes of making the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in biathlon, a combination of cross country skiing and marksmanship. He was one of eight military Veterans on the 11-man U.S. biathlon team at the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wis., Jan. 12-20.

The number of Veterans who competed in the event is an example of the joint efforts by the VA and U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, to provide physically disabled Veterans with increased opportunities of activity and wellness.

Through an active recruitment effort, U.S. Paralympic Biathlon Coach Rob Rosser said he makes visits to military and VA Medical Centers year round.

“Most Veterans joined the military because they wanted a challenge, are highly competitive and enjoy physical exertion,” he said. “Biathlon combines the most physiologically demanding sport of cross country skiing with a more mentally challenging sport of marksmanship, under stress of high heart rate and the pressure of the clock running as they shoot. Veteran athletes tell me they picked biathlon because it was the most challenging and most similar to their combat job – moving and shooting.”

Army Reserves veteran Jeremy Wagner wasn’t sure if biathlon was for him when he was first asked to try the sport.

In 2007, after a year in Iraq, he too returned home and suffered a motorcycle accident. The crash injured his spinal cord and he lost the use of his legs.

“After my injury I was just taking it one day at a time,” Wagner said. “I did some rehab on my own, but my cousin helped me go to the VA.”

The Hawaii native was treated at the Palo Alto VA Medical Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Center in California.

“That’s where my real road to recovery began,” he said. “My therapist in Palo Alto gave me all the necessary tools to get me going again.” She also introduced him to the VA’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

In 2010, while competing in the Games in Denver, Wagner was approached by a Paralympics biathlon coach.

“I guess he saw me doing the slalom event, and he asked me if I’d be interested in biathlon.”

Wagner took a chance and gave up the sandy beaches of Hawaii for the snowcaps of the Colorado Rockies. He moved in with his cousin in Colorado where he now trains full-time in biathlon.

His effort has paid off. In June 2012, Wagner was named to the 2012-13 U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team. He competed for Team USA at the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Championships, Feb. 23-March 5, in Solleftea, Sweden.

“You may think, ‘I’ll never be at that level,’ but you never know until you try,” he said. “A lot of us, we want to be good at something right away. When we don’t, we give up. But every champion wasn’t a champion from the start.”

Each athlete on the U.S. world team is an active duty or veteran serviceman: U.S. Navy Lt. Dan Cnossen (Jamestown, Mich.); Eric Frazier (Maple Hill, N.C.), retired Marines; Sean Halsted (Spokane, Wash./Twin Lakes, Idaho), retired Air Force; Andy Soule (Pearland, Texas), retired Army; and Wagner.

Wagner trains at the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winter Park, Colo.

In October 2012, NSCD was named one of 97 organizations to receive a grant through the Olympic Opportunity Fund, a partnership between the United States Olympic Committee and VA. The Fund provides grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 to organizations that support Paralympic sport and physical activity programs for disabled Veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces.

In its third year, the fund has provided more than $4 million to 223 USOC partner and community programs, and has resulted in thousands of Veterans with physical and visual impairments participating in sport programs.

“The partnership and support from the VA has given hope to numerous Veterans,” Rosser said. “As the programs grow and expand, the entire country gains awareness of the positive aspects sport offers our Veterans, and the long-lasting affects it has on their quality of life after the sacrifice they have made for our country.”

Wagner also receives a monthly training allowance from the VA. The VA and U.S. Paralympics’ collaborative provides a stipend to athletes who meet established eligibility requirements, including training commitment and qualifying competition standards.

“The stipend really helps with purchasing poles, gloves, all of the other equipment that’s necessary,” he said.

When Kevin Burton arrived at the event in Cable, he was still learning the sport and had yet to qualify for the training stipend.

In 2010, while on active duty in the Navy, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. The former Arabic linguist had served nine years with the Navy including tours to Iraq and Kuwait when he began losing his eyesight. Before being medically retired, he was treated at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center’s Augusta Blind Rehabilitation Center in Georgia.

“The blind rehab program was amazing,” Burton said. “I was really worried about losing my remaining vision, but after going through that, I’m not that worried. I know I can still do pretty much anything.”

In March 2012, Burton attended the VA’s National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo. It was the first time he’d been on skis since losing his sight.

Like all biathlon athletes, he skis and shoots targets, but being visually impaired he has a guide who skis in front of him and shouts directions during the cross country skiing. When it comes time to shoot the rifle he uses audio cues and the pitch of a tone to zone in on the target.

“You wear headphones to tell you how close you are, and if you are on target,” he said. “The normal shooting advice doesn’t apply to the visually impaired. It’s strictly distance from the center.”

Despite his newcomer status, Burton went on to win a silver medal in Cable and his finishing time was good enough to earn him the VA training stipend.

“A lot of my success is because of the support I’ve been given from day one,” he said. “But I’ve still got to work hard and keep improving.”

Bermejo agreed. He also qualified for the training allowance during the event.

“Know if you put in the work and have positive thoughts, good things will happen,” he said. “The opportunities are there, but in the end, if you want something you will go get it.”