Freddie de los Santos competes at the lympic Games Rio 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
While competing at the UCI Para-cycling Road World Championships in Maniago, Italy, this week, Team USA will be staying on the grounds of Aviano Air Base, home to the U.S. Air Force’s 31st Fighter Wing.
Six members of the team also happen to be military veterans, including Paralympian Freddie De Los Santos, who served in the Special Operations Command for the U.S. Army.
“Staying at the Aviano Air Base brings back lots of memories and mixed feelings,” he said. "It’s a great honor and a privilege to stay on base training with the U.S. Paralympic Team.”
De Los Santos, a first-time Paralympian in 2016, helped Team USA win silver in the handcycle relay at last year’s world championships and will be aiming for the podium in both the time trial and road race in the H5 classification this time around.
“I want to win and become the world champion this year,” De Los Santos said. “Since Rio, I’ve been more disciplined with my nutrition as well as my training regimen. I’m now significantly in better shape than two years ago at the Paralympic Games.”
It’s been a long and winding road for De Los Santos — a native of the Dominican Republic who moved to West Harlem in New York City at the age of 17 — to become a legitimate podium contender at the world championships.
"In the Dominican Republic, we’re taught that we have to work hard in order to achieve our goals and be successful,” he said. “We’re goal-oriented and education is a priority in life. The family is our support system to guide and support us in our life journey.”
That all came into play when De Los Santos had to rebuild his life from the ground up more than a decade ago.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, De Los Santos felt compelled to join the U.S. military and serve his country.
In 2008, while serving in Afghanistan, his patrol was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He lost his right leg, suffered a traumatic brain injury and the blast concussion hit him so hard that his head slammed down and he lost his teeth.
He had to undergo extensive rehabilitation back in the U.S. while wrestling with alcohol, medication and suicidal thoughts simultaneously. He’d do anything to just escape the flashbacks, despite the love and support of his wife, son and daughter.
That’s when sports came into his life. The Achilles International Freedom Team, made up of wounded veterans, saved him, introducing him to skiing, swimming, golfing and finally cycling.
“During my rehabilitation process at Walter Reed Hospital, I saw many wounded vets overcome great odds and adversity through sports,” he said. “At the time I was struggling with anxiety, depression, mental trauma, and cycling helped me to get my life back.
"Cycling has become a way of life since I got injured in Afghanistan. Through cycling, I’ve been able to incorporate myself back to society physically and mentally. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences to be able to compete.”
In addition to his performances on the bike, De Los Santos, who previously studied and worked as a graphic designer for many years, likes to paint abstract and surrealist art to showcase the emotions he’s gone through in his life.
Art, including graphic design, painting and even dancing, has helped him reflect and helped others understand him.
“I want people to look at my paintings and sense a feeling of what I went through so they can get to know me a little bit better,” he said.
Much like painting, becoming a world champion takes hard work, preparation and vision to realize. And it also results in a work of art. In this case, it’s a gold medal hanging around the neck.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.