Oz Sanchez left the London 2012 Paralympic Games four years ago with two medals. One was a gold, the other bronze. It matched his performance at Beijing in 2008.
For most athletes it would count as an exceptional haul and cause for celebration.
Sanchez, however, felt as if he’d come up short. To Sanchez, a hand cyclist, the time trial is his favorite event. To him, it’s the truest test of who is top dog in his sport. He’d been thrilled at Beijing when he’d won the time trial. Then he finished third in London. Even the gold medal he won in 2012 as part of the team relay couldn’t make up for it.
Looking back, he believes he lost his edge.
“My preparation for London wasn’t as good as my preparation for Beijing,” he said. “Basically since Beijing, I dominated that race, so I just kind of got complacent.”
The disappointment has fueled Sanchez’s drive to get back on top of the podium for the time trial at this fall’s Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
After the London Games he walked away from his job to get more flexibility and time for his training, while ramping up his work as a motivational speaker to make up the difference. In the time since London, he said he’s made big gains. At 40, he’s ready for redemption in Rio.
“It was a tough decision, but in the end I think it will pan out and I expect to win that time trial,” he said.
"A Beautiful Journey"
If anybody can fight his way back to the top, it’s Sanchez.
He spent six years in the Marine Corps, did two tours of duty in the Middle East and was qualified into the Corps’ special ops unit. In 2001, he made the decision to transfer to the Navy to become a SEAL. It was then, however, that he was involved in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident that damaged his spinal cord, and his legs were paralyzed.
At that point, the once-active Marine was lost. He didn’t know what his path would be. But after fighting through depression, Sanchez became an athlete again, competing as a hand cyclist and paratriathlete.
In 2004 he competed in hand cycling against U.S. Paralympic athletes bound for the Athens Games, and that lit a spark.
“It was a real eye-opener, a humbling experience as well,” said Sanchez, who lives and trains in San Diego. “At that point I was like, ‘Wow, I want to be part of the Paralympic team. These guys are ridiculously fast.’”
By 2005 he was on that national team, and he’s been going strong ever since. In addition to his Paralympic medals, he’s also won five world titles, graduated from San Diego State with a degree in business administration and become a sought-after motivational speaker, where he talks about his life and overcoming obstacles. Said Sanchez:
“If you had told me back when I was 18, ‘Hey you’re going to be in the Marine Corps and you’re going to be doing military special operations later,’ I would have been, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy.’ And then if you said, ‘You’re going to break your back, you’re going to be paralyzed, you’re going to struggle with suicide and depression,’ I’d be like, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy.’ And if you’d told me in my depression, ‘Hey, you’re going to recover from this, you’re going to be truly happy, you’re going to win Paralympic gold medals and you’re going to be a motivational speaker,’ I’d be like, ‘You’ve really got the wrong guy.’”
What he’s learned, he said, is that he had to be open to fate and the changes it brings. The more he’s been willing to accept being outside his comfort zone the more he’s grown. He keeps adding more unexpected chapters to his life, he said. This summer he’ll begin a certification program at San Diego State for mental health and trauma counseling. He’s also applying to graduate schools in the same field, starting in 2017.
“So it’s been a beautiful journey, absolutely,” he said.
Working Toward Gold
At the London Games, the time trial in Sanchez’s H4 classification was won by Alex Zanardi, the former Italian Formula One race car driver who lost his legs following a horrific crash in 2001.
Now Sanchez believes he’s well positioned to turn the tables on Zanardi at Rio. In past races against Zanardi — including last year’s world championships in Switzerland — Zanardi has beaten him on very hilly courses. Because Zanardi is much lighter (due to the amputations), those courses set up well for the Italian rival against the bigger, heavier Sanchez.
In Brazil, however, the course will be relatively flat, and Sanchez is certain he can use his strength to his advantage.
“That’s the beauty of Rio,” Sanchez said. “Rio has no elevation gains. It’s not technical. It’s literally going to be muscle vs. muscle, bike vs. bike, which I think is going to favor me.”
To stay at the top, Sanchez — and the other elite hand cyclists — have had to continuously raise their games. The level of competition rises each year. What earns a victory one year isn’t good enough the next.
At this point, though, Sanchez believes his training and preparation have made him better than ever as he prepares for his first competition of 2016, a UCI Para-cycling World Cup event on May 20-22 in Belgium. Every day, he’s been doing nearly two hours of work in the weight room and three hours on his cycle.
First come the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for track and field on June 30-July 2 in Charlotte, North Carolina, and then the Paralympic Games Sept. 7-18. For Sanchez, wining back the time-trial gold medal is just part of his mantra: Know No Limits.
The phrase is tattooed on his chest. It reminds him that he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to. He never thought he could graduate from college, but did. He never thought he could be a Paralympian, but is.
“I realized I can do anything I set my mind to, just as long as I have the passion, the drive and the commitment to follow through,” he said. “I am really capable of accomplishing big things.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.