For Josh Sweeney, the situation at the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games set up just like a dream.
In the gold-medal game against host Russia, with the score tied at 0-0, the then-26-year-old American sled hockey player forced a turnover.
He gathered the loose puck and raced toward Russian goaltender Vladimir Kamantcev. Sweeney faked left and shot right, sending the puck over Kamantcev’s glove and under the crossbar for the winning goal.
It was an unbeatable moment for the U.S. Marine Corps veteran, the emotional high point in an exhausting journey that started when he lost both his legs after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan in 2009.
“It definitely made me feel good, helping the U.S. But I try to focus on what I can do to get better,” said Sweeney by phone from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, where he will help lead the U.S. team against Canada today at the 2016 World Sled Hockey Challenge.
Forward motion is second nature to Sweeney. In the two years since the Sochi Games, he has spent countless hours on the ice, adding new moves and shots to his game.
But the biggest addition to his life occurred four months ago, when his wife Amber gave birth to their first child, Sawyer. Another big change occurred when the Sweeneys moved into a Portland, Oregon-area house built and donated to them through the nonprofit Homes For Our Troops.
“It would be so difficult to move around with my son and just do everyday things if we didn’t live in this house,” he said. “It is so liberating.”
So is hockey for Sweeney. The U.S. team has won four of the last five major international events, including the 2015 world championships and 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, thanks in part to a corps of war veterans. No fewer than six roster spots are filled with Purple Heart recipients, including retired Marines Luke McDermott, Josh Misiewicz and Paul Schaus, retired Army staff sergeant Rico Roman and retired Navy SEAL Bo Reichenbach.
Sweeney, McDermott and Schaus all man the same line, and they helped Team USA beat South Korea and Russia in the opening rounds in Nova Scotia.
“Instead of running operations in the field, we’re doing it on the ice now,” Sweeney said. “It’s kind of cool. We have a bond. We can talk honestly to each other. ‘You did well today,’ or ‘You need to work on this.’
“This is a friendly, family-like setting, but we’re also professionals. We’re here to do a job — to go out and score as many goals as possible.
“‘Mission Accomplished’ is always going to be our No. 1 priority.”
There’s a special relationship between Sweeney and Schaus; both were injured in Nowzad, Afghanistan, in 2009.
“That was kind of interesting. Both of us stepped on an IED, both of us had to have both legs amputated above the knee,” Sweeney said.
When Sweeney joined the U.S. sled hockey team after the injury, nerve damage in his arms and hands made it extremely difficult for him to grip the sticks that also propel players along the ice. Yet he was named to the national team six months later. Then came his big breakthrough: In a five-month span in 2014, the Phoenix native led his regional team to a national championship, scored the winning goal in Sochi against Russia and received the first annual Pat Tillman Award at the ESPYS.
Now he has a chance to add another major title to his résumé, as well as another chapter to his stirring story.
“I’ve kind of reached the point where I’ve moved past a lot of the issues I may have had from being injured,” he said. “Now the therapeutic part of hockey is just trying to improve each day on the ice, finding new ways to score or making amazing plays.”
In time, his son may join him on the ice.
“I sure hope so,” he said. “My wife was a swimmer in college (at the College of Idaho), so we understand the value of sports. Hockey has been huge for me.”
Clay Latimer is a Denver-based writer who covered four Olympic Games, in addition to other sports, over 28 years with the Rocky Mountain News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.