Four years ago, Tyler Burdick never would have imagined himself representing Team USA at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.
Yet that is his No. 1 goal this season, and a realistic one at that.
Burdick, a retired Navy petty officer 2nd class, was serving as a hospital corpsman with the 3rd Battalion 6th Marines in Helmand, Afghanistan, in 2010, on the third deployment of his military career. With just one week left in his assignment, Burdick’s armored vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb. All were knocked unconscious but Burdick. There were no deaths, but Burdick’s feet were badly injured in the accident.
The soldier was medevac’d to the Naval National Medical Center, now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md., for rehabilitation. He decided against amputation, instead undergoing limb salvage and intense physical therapy to regain as much muscular strength in his feet and lower legs as possible. In October 2011, Burdick was fitted for a pair of cutting-edge leg braces that allowed him to stand and walk upright again.
An avid snowboarder before the accident, Burdick didn’t know it would be possible to return the active lifestyle he had always had.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to snowboard at all when I first got hurt,” Burdick said. “When the doctors were first talking to me about expectations and possibly having to walk with a cane or with special braces for the rest of my life, I was immediately looking up what other disabled people were doing, and whether any of them were snowboarding.”
While browsing online during rehabilitation, Burdick found a video of Paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy running with two prosthetic legs; it was then that his outlook on his condition changed.
“That was a game-changer,” Burdick said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I could totally overcome this.”
Soon, Burdick was looking for opportunities to return to the slopes. After developing the strength to be back on his feet again, Burdick inquired about volunteering at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah, a program he had heard about through the Wounded Warrior Project.
But as soon as Burdick found out the NAC had its own able-bodied and adaptive race team called Team Utah, his plan changed. He began training exclusively for the adaptive snowboard racing circuit, and he excelled immediately on the international stage.
In his first season of competition, Burdick notched Top 10 performances at a NorAm in Lake Tahoe and the International Paralympic Committee Alpine Skiing Snowboard World Cup in Big White, Canada. At the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Championships, the first ever national championship for para-snowboard, he earned his first podium with a second-place finish.
The silver-medal performance earned Burdick a nomination to the U.S. Paralympics Snowboard National B Team, making him a top hopeful for the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Team, which will compete in March in Sochi, Russia. Five men and five women will compete in snowboard cross for Team USA.
Burdick was medically retired from the Navy on Veterans Day of last year. Though he’s had his fair share of challenges since the 2010 explosion, he said he has no regrets about the decision he made to serve his country.
“Absolutely, I would do it again,” Burdick said. “Of course, I would like to go back and not get blown up, but that being said, I wouldn’t trade all of that for the experiences and the people I’ve met. This has been a very eye-opening, character-building experience, and I’ve just taken the positive from it.”
Burdick’s position in his battalion as hospital corpsman, he said, was somewhat inspired by his father’s career as a physician.
“We share a passion for caring for the sick and injured, so he motivated me to take care of Marines,” Burdick said. “That’s what I chose, and I loved it. I was not ready to get out, and I would still be in if I could be.”
Today, Burdick represents his country in a different way – as a part of Team USA.
“The camaraderie in my sport really reminds me of my time with the Marine Corps,” Burdick said. “We’re all sharing a common goal and motivation, and a desire to succeed. I think it’s helped me to stay so positive throughout my recovery.”
Burdick said his experiences on Team Utah and Team USA give him a sense of the fellowship and loyalty that was so crucial during his time in the military.
“I think a lot of veterans, after they get hurt and are medically retired, lose that sense of team and unit and esprit de corps,” Burdick said. “Being on a team gives me that.”
Members of the U.S. Paralympics Snowboarding National Team will travel to Landgraaf, Netherlands, for the first world cup competition of the season on Nov. 21-22. Athletes’ performances at this and several other world cup events this season will determine the U.S. Paralympic Team.
For Burdick, the ultimate destination is Sochi. Though knows the competition to make the U.S. team will be tough, he’s happy to compete in such a talented field.
“My number one goal is to make the U.S. Paralympic Team and race in Sochi with the best guys in my sport,” Burdick said, “which luckily are all my teammates, so I know exactly what I’m up against.”