Paralympian by number

By Jamie M. Blanchard | Feb. 21, 2014, 11 a.m. (ET)
Dan McCoy
Dan McCoy will make his Paralympic Winter Games debut in Sochi, Russia.

When Dan McCoy picked out his first jersey number for the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team in summer 2010, the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games were not on his mind. He picked No. 14 because it was available when his original choice, 96, was not.

“It is just a coincidence that I wear 14,” McCoy said earlier this week from Charlotte, N.C., where he is training with the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team in preparation for the Games.

And a happy coincidence at that.

Dan McCoy
Dan McCoy, No. 14, is in his fourth season with the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team.

In just 14 days, McCoy will be at the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, just moments from making his Paralympic debut in the sport he’s been playing for over 14 years.

“This is a dream come true,” said McCoy, who turned 20 in January. “When I started to get competitive in sled hockey, around 7 or 8 years old, I started to dream about winning a gold medal in the Paralympics. It is awesome to be this close to achieving that goal that I have had for years.”

At 5, he tried sled hockey for the first time, taking to the ice like his older brother Andrew, who played able-bodied hockey.

“At first, I didn’t really like it,” McCoy said.

He struggled with the equipment, especially the extensive protective padding worn. He disliked the chilling temperature of the rink.

“It took a while to get used to it and develop a passion for it.”

But when he did, it was like nothing else.

“When I’m out there, I really don’t realize I have a disability,” he said. “Everyone is on the same playing field, playing the game the exact same way.”

McCoy was born with spina bifida, a birth defect caused by the incomplete formation of vertebrae, and hydrocephalus,  a medical condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the brain.

“I think of my disability as a badge of honor,” McCoy said. “Even though I have a disability, I’m doing a lot of things that other people really can’t do. I’m really fortunate to have these opportunities.”

The opportunity he is most thankful for is competing for Team USA.

“There are a lot of emotions that come with something like this,” said McCoy, who admits he was on the verge of tears when he received the text message from general manager Dan Brennan confirming his spot on the 2014 team. “This is what I’ve wanted for most of my life.”

McCoy sat in the stands of the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, watching the U.S. Paralympic Team strike gold for the first time since 2002.

“I tried out for the team but I didn’t make it. I guess it wasn’t my time,” he said. “I was disappointed but never discouraged enough to stop trying to achieve my goal of making a Paralympic Team.”

He used his experience in Vancouver – in a seat, not a sled – as motivation. “It added more fuel to the fire,” he said.

McCoy made the 2010-11 U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. And he competed as No. 14.

“I remember when we were in Toronto for my first game, I just let out a big sigh of relief,” McCoy said. “This was actually happening.”

It was better than he even expected.

“What is even crazier than just being there as a member of the team, I scored a goal in my first game,” he said.

The date?

Oct. 14, 2010.

His number may have been a coincidence but now it seems a little like fate.

“This year will be big year for me,” McCoy said.

He is taking the semester off from his studies at the University of Pittsburgh – where he is majoring in rehab sciences, a degree he hopes to use to advance technology for the disabled.

“School will always be here,” he said. “But this Paralympics thing is once in a lifetime.”

The competition starts March 8 with the U.S. team taking on Italy.

Playoffs start on March 12.

“Sled hockey has really made me who I am today,” McCoy said.

Almost perfectly, he is No. 14.

And someday soon, he could also be No. 1.

“My goal is to play as hard as I can,” he said. “All the work I’ve been doing over the past four years is being put to the test in Sochi. The ultimate goal is to play well and help my team to the gold medal.”