Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Rico Roman was a forward on the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team that won the gold medal at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014. He says winning was about more than defense, the strength of the power play or hot goaltending. Roman says it was about team chemistry and pulling together in the same direction.
Now, with the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 set to begin March 9 in South Korea, Roman says his focus is on doing whatever he can to help this team bond the way that one did.
Roman, the oldest member of the 17-player team at 36, was speaking about the upcoming Games recently while with his teammates in Chicago, where they were training. The U.S. team was packed into a house together and will be united from now until the Games, with a tournament in Italy, a home-and-home series against Canada and final preparation before flying to South Korea.
“A lot of us are definitely working hard again in the gym and on the ice, but I think also getting along off the ice, all living under one roof now, eating dinners together, going around the city together,” he said. “I think building that team bond, that brotherhood, and taking that into the Games will be a huge advantage for us.”
That bond can be created in many ways, he says, with much of it formed away from the rink.
“I think it’s the little things,” he said. “For instance, we’ve got a little ping-pong tournament that we set up among ourselves. Nobody told us to do that, and we’re putting each other with random players on our team, so it’s a two-on-two little game we’re going to play.”
Also, on their last trip to Canada, the Americans put together one-on-one and team basketball games.
“Whether guys were standing up on prosthetic legs or guys were in wheelchairs, it was so much fun,” he said. “That laughing and the cracking up that went on. Again, it’s the off-the-ice stuff, I think, that really brings the togetherness.”
The time he and his teammates spent in Chicago set the foundation for the next few weeks to come, he said. Already, the team feels as if it’s developing a strong chemistry.
“For sure, hands down,” he said. “As soon as you set foot in the house (in Chicago) and we’re all together, the cracking jokes and the laughing. I went to the grocery store and bought a bunch of food and somebody else went to the grocery store. We’re all sharing and eating different meals and everybody’s cooking differently and trying different things. I feel like that’s a huge part (of coming together).”
Ten players on this roster, including Roman, were teammates in Sochi, so it’s a good mix of returning and new players. Goaltender Steve Cash is going to his fourth Paralympic Games, having won a bronze medal in 2006 and golds in 2010 and 2014. Three others — captain Josh Pauls, Nikko Landeros and Adam Page — will be going to their third Games.
Roman, a retired Army staff sergeant, did three tours of duty in Iraq. In 2007, he was wounded when an improvised explosive device was detonated, causing the amputation of his left leg above the knee. He’s a long-time member of the U.S. national team and has played in two world championships (2012 and 2013) and helped his team win one gold and one silver medal. Roman says from what he’s seen, this team will have good chemistry as well as talent, with everyone — from captains and assistant captains to team rookies — contributing.
“I feel like whether you have a C or an A on your jersey, we’ve got 17 leaders on the team,” he said. “And we all know when to be a leader and know when to follow. I definitely think we’re ready to go.”
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.