A conversation with Corbin Stacey is filled with laughter. He laughs about himself as an athlete, some of the things he’s done and even about his chances of being on the 2020 U.S. Paralympic Team.
“There’s nothing really that can get me down, because I’m still here,” he says. “I have a lot of friends and family members that aren’t here, and I take that as a victory every day.”
Stacey, 46, is a retired Staff Sgt. in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and one of the best athletes in the budding U.S. Paralympic taekwondo program. The sport will make its Paralympic debut in Tokyo in four years.
Stacey is ranked fourth in the world in the latest rankings for his K44 75+ kg. (165 pounds) division. He says he probably would have been ranked third, but he skipped a tournament to see his son graduate from high school.
“Can’t miss a graduation,” he says, laughing.
Stacey, who lives in Cleveland with his wife and three children, has been an athlete his entire life. He played football and ran track in high school in Cleveland and received a track and field scholarship to Youngstown State. After graduation, he joined the Army and continued to be active, competing on the national Army track team. He also began training in taekwondo, and eventually tried out for the all-Armed Services team in that sport.
But in 2009, his life took a horrible turn after 19½ years of active duty. While participating in training before being deployed overseas, he broke three vertebrae in his neck in a fall. The spinal cord was injured, said Stacey, which caused paralysis in his arms and legs.
About six weeks after the injury, while at an Army medical facility, movement and feeling began to return. Gradually, he was back on his feet and going through rehabilitation. Several months later, however, he was injured again when his car was rear-ended while he was on his way to a medical appointment.
“So basically, I was right back where I started from,” he said. He had to again go through surgery and begin rehabilitation.
During the course of his rehabilitation, he tried wheelchair basketball and fencing before discovering there was a taekwondo program.
Today Stacey’s body is about 85 percent of what it was. The right side — shoulder, arm, neck — have little feeling and aren’t as strong as his left side. Sometimes during a match he forgets he’s injured, and tries to move in a certain way that doesn’t quite work.
“So it’s still a work in progress,” he says, laughing.
Yet Stacey — work in progress, or not — has had a solid season. A sixth-degree black belt, he was second at the Paralympic national championships this year, second at the Pan American Para-Taekwondo Championships in Mexico, third at the Asian Para-Taekwondo Championships and second at the Canada Para Open.
The highlight, he said, was placing third at the Asian Championships in the Philippines in April.
“It was one of the best fields, besides the European Championships,” he said.
Stacey defeated India’s Raj Bal Singh 14-2 in the quarterfinals to get to the medal round, but then had to withdraw in his next match because of an injury.
Over the next couple of years, Stacey’s goal is to get into better shape to perhaps compete in the -75 kg. division, and to continue to improve toward the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru.
He said he’s more tortoise than hare when it comes to goals, taking things slowly and deliberately. He’s not going to think about making the 2020 Paralympic team until he judges his ability at the Parapan Games. If it’s high, he’ll go for the Games. If he’s not where he wants to be, he’ll focus on coaching or doing whatever he can for the program during Tokyo.
“My goal is always to field the highest-level team,” he said. “You know, I’m a soldier, so I’m not going to lose the battle just for my self-grandiose fulfillment of saying I went to the Paralympics.”
Coaching, working with youth and helping veterans have been important to Stacey since long before he was injured. After fighting through his own physical and mental challenges — he’s suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder — he’s eager and excited to help other veterans the way so many people helped him.
He’s tried to get injured veterans into taekwondo and other sports and wants to be a catalyst for change. He wears a “Mission 22” logo on his taekwondo uniform to raise awareness for the estimated number of suicides that are committed each day by military veterans.
He said he’s not sure how he would have fared had others not helped him get active in sports after his injuries. He cites individuals and the Wounded Warrior Project and Operation Comfort. He was inspired by watching those in his wounded warrior transition unit overcome physical challenges.
“There’s a lot of organizations out there (to help),” he said. “But there’s still a stigma that you’re kind of weak if you need help, a stigma about mental health problems.”
He wants veterans to know, too, that money is available from veterans programs to cover training in athletic programs that aid injured veterans, such as the one he coaches for, Public Safety Fitness in Cleveland.
Today, Stacey feels blessed and wants to help others feel that way, too. He says getting back into taekwondo as an athlete and coach opened a door for him.
“It got me back to being busy, taking care of people,” he says. “To care about what I was doing with my health, my actual looking in a mirror and like, ‘Who is this fat dude in the mirror?’ Actually caring about myself. From there, people said, ‘If you can do it, I can do it,’ and that was that.”
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.