Fueling communities presented by BP: Heath Calhoun

By Beth Bourgeois | March 10, 2014, 7:30 a.m. (ET)
Heath Calhoun
Heath Calhoun, a U.S. Army veteran, finished fourth in the super-G Sunday at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.

Heath Calhoun is an unassuming guy. Despite the eye-catching beard that stretches well past his neck, Calhoun likes to keep a low profile — fly under the radar.

Fresh off a fourth place performance in the men's super-G sitting at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, you better believe more people are aware of Calhoun than he’d like.

“I love skiing, the sport is so dynamic,” said Calhoun. “I am stronger in events that four years ago I never thought I would be excelling at, that’s what’s so exciting about ski racing, every day is different.”

But besides being an achieved two-time Paralympian in alpine skiing, the Purple Heart recipient has a lengthy list of personal and professional accolades too. An Army Staff Sergeant prior to the 2003 explosion in Iraq that resulted in the loss of both of his legs above the knees, Calhoun says military service is in his blood. His father served in Vietnam, and his grandfather in World War II.

“I think there are lot of similarities between my military service and ski racing,” said Calhoun. “They’ve both given me an opportunity to represent my country to its fullest, whether that was on the battlefield or on the side of a mountain.”

Post-injury, he became an advocate for wounded warriors. He helped get the Wounded Warrior Bill passed through Congress in 2005. Known as traumatic injury protection, the legislation financially assists wounded soldiers and their families during the months, and sometimes years, of grueling rehabilitation.

In the spring of that same year, Calhoun and another wounded service member and an able-bodied individual set out to raise money and awareness for other wounded service members. Their goal was to cycle across the United States. They began in Los Angeles and ended 4200 miles later in Montauk, N.Y., all the while, Calhoun on his handcycle. Their endeavor was documented in the Showtime Original Production “Home Front”.

“That was an amazing experience for me. I got involved for the challenge and for being involved in a good cause, but I also ended up learning so much about myself during the process.”

In 2007, the Wounded Warrior Project presented Calhoun with the George C. Lang Award for Courage, and he served as spokesman for the organization for years, also helping with fundraising efforts to support other wounded warriors and their families.

Calhoun has also mentored countless service members and veterans who’ve been through similar life-changing injuries. He says those who had done the same for him proved invaluable during his recovery, and he wanted to return the favor. He knows there’s no one better to help someone back on their feet, than someone who has been through similar circumstances, even adding that sometimes it’s the most simple, unexpected pieces of advice that can make all of the difference in someone’s world.

He has also been heavily involved with prosthetic research and development, helping other amputees to make the transition back onto their legs through technology. He’s assisted at prosthetic camps and clinics, showing how he managed to overcome challenges such as ill-fitting prosthetics, loose seals, and how he perfecting his gait.

Calhoun says sometimes it’s as simple as returning a phone call, sometimes an email, “Whatever I can do, whatever it takes, however we can get ‘em walking again.”

He also became an Amputee Coalition of America (ACA) certified peer visitor. Through the organization he made himself available to others who have lost limbs and provided emotional and informational support to them.

But Calhoun won’t openly share these achievements with you. Or the countless hours he’s spent helping others. What he will volunteer about himself is his great love of his three kids: Mason, 11; Brystal, 9; and Bailee, 8.

“I hope my kids can see that just because something bad happens, that you don’t stop, that you can continue with life,” said Calhoun. “Maybe everyone can get that message out of it, I guess.”

Calhoun’s children live in Tennessee, were Calhoun shares custody of the kids with his ex-wife when he isn’t training in Aspen, Colo., or on the road competing. He says the distance makes being a parent a constant juggling act.

“It’s really difficult. I spend six months of the year away from the children, it’s not easy on them or me, but I try to do the best that I can. My son has an iPod now, so that’s helped, because the kids and I can text, Skype and Facetime, but it’s definitely not easy. They’re young, so it’s tough for them to understand the power of the Paralympic Movement, but I hope that one day they will truly understand it.”

A power that Calhoun says has its good and bad. Calhoun says that skiing has given so much back to him, but it’s also taken its toll in the time he’s lost with his kids. After Sochi, his first stop will be back to Tennessee to hug those three, smiling faces.

Aside from those plans, Calhoun’s not sure what the future holds post-Sochi.

 “Going to the Paralympics and being a Paralympian opens a lot of doors. I’m not sure where it will take me next or what’s next in store, but I’m excited about the opportunities ahead and see what the future brings.”

He has three races remaining in Sochi: giant slalom, slalom and super combined.