Rico Roman
Rico Roman, U.S. Army veteran, starts his first Paralympic Winter Games today in Sochi, Russia, with the Opening Ceremony.

One journey ends, another begins in Sochi

BY RICO ROMAN

When trying to convince other wounded veterans to give sled hockey a try, I often get a similar response: But I don't know anything about hockey.

Well, neither did I.

Yet here I am, five years later, in Sochi, ready to help Team USA defend our Paralympic gold medal.

Sports have always been a part of my life. Growing up in Oregon, I played football and wrestled. Soon after my left leg was amputated, I was playing wheelchair basketball and hand cycling. But hockey? I knew nothing about the sport.

The first thing a lot of people notice about sled hockey is the aggression and intensity. I liked that part (I was in the service and have two younger brothers, so aggression was never the hard part!). But, like others I talk to today, I was intimidated by the game itself.

When you watch the games in Sochi you’ll see it: This is real hockey. We check, we shoot the puck pretty dang hard, our goalies are great, and we even use some of the same strategy as stand-up players. The only difference is that we’re in sleds.

So I gave it a shot.

Right away I loved the physicality and intensity of the sport. Playing with the U.S. Paralympic Team, you’ve got the best of the best. Everybody is fast, everybody can shoot the puck hard, everybody’s got talent. And the work ethic, the physicality, the discipline, that was all there for me pretty much from the start. The hard part was learning the actual game of hockey.

In this short time I've learned to love and appreciate hockey, whether on sleds or in the NHL. But the journey to get here had its ups and downs.

I had only been playing for about eight months after my amputation when I was asked to try out for the 2010 U.S. Paralympic Team. But I kind of took it for granted. Being an infantryman, feeling like I was in good shape, I just felt like I would make the team. I thought about how great it would be to make the squad and play in Vancouver, only about six hours away from my family in Oregon.

Then I didn't.

That brought a realization for me. Those guys who made the team were world-class athletes. They'd been training so hard. I wouldn't say I was devastated by being cut, but I just realized that I had taken the opportunity for granted and had no one to blame but myself. And that just made me more determined to be on the team this time. I knew I would have to put in a lot more work, so I went to the drawing board and figured out a plan.

The first step, as other men can appreciate, was going to my wife, Nathalie. I asked her to please let me chase this dream of being a Paralympian, and she agreed and has supported me every step of the way.

Since then, I said I was going to do whatever I had to do to get on the team. I busted my butt in the gym, I worked off the ice with weight training, did cross training with wheelchair basketball, hand cycling, rowing and swimming. I made the U.S. team in 2011-12, but then another realization hit me: Man, the Paralympics are every four years, so I’ve still got three more years!

Every year I continued to put in the work to get to the point where I am today. My first year on the team I rode the bench a lot. The following year I got a little better. As my understanding of the game continued to improve I moved to defense and then back to forward.

I also benefitted a lot from my club team, the all-veteran San Antonio Rampage. Fellow U.S. teammates Josh Sweeney, a Marine, and Jen Lee, who is an Army sergeant, play there too. With guys like that backing me up and pushing me on the ice every day, I knew I would be good enough to make the Paralympic Team. We all push each other to be better every day on the ice.

When the Zamboni comes off the ice and I hear the national anthem for the first time in Sochi, that’s when I’m going to be the most excited, that’s when this whole experience is really going to hit me. Hopefully we can defend our gold medal — I think we can — but I also hope we can put on a good show for you guys, too.

Coming from knowing nothing about hockey to being a Paralympic sled hockey player is quite a journey. It’s not impossible, though, and I hope the competitiveness, the intensity, the physicality and the excitement of the sport draws you in just like it did for me.