Every Olympic or Paralympic athlete has some tale of glory, about a time in their lives when they felt on top of the world in their sport.
Paralympian Seth Jahn has those stories too, but with even higher stakes: “I have a story about how sport actually saved my life, if you want to hear it,” he said.
A U.S. Army veteran, Jahn was on his second deployment in Afghanistan, embedded in the eastern part of the country with a unit from the Afghan National Army (ANA). The cultural differences were vast, and Jahn and his fellow Americans also knew some of the ANA soldiers they were embedded with were former mujahideen, ex-Taliban fighters.
“It just was kind of a very uncomfortable, volatile relationship where we’re living and operating with these guys and we just couldn’t make any headway in our rapport-building,” Jahn said. “One of the guys on my team, he used to play soccer at the University of Maryland. He said, ‘Why don’t we break out the soccer ball?’”
By nightfall, the game had grown to a 19-on-19 supersized match. Soon after every mission, the Americans and Afghans were having a friendly kickabout. Weeks later, one of the Afghan fighters came forward with some information he had learned about a planned ambush. That information saved the lives of the entire unit.
“What that translates to is soccer transcended those barriers,” Jahn said. “Those language barriers, those racial barriers, those cultural barriers, to a place where it brought love into a war-torn area.”
That story encompasses a few things that Jahn, 36, has dedicated his life to: soccer, the military, and serving and helping others. Jahn was a talented soccer player growing up in Florida, and played at then-DII St. Andrews University before a pro career in South America. He loved the game, but began to want something more out of life.
“I remember looking in the faces in the crowd and getting like just the most like nauseous feeling in my stomach, I just felt like a court jester or a pet monkey where people are paying for me to entertain them and then they leave that stadium and go do real meaningful things in their lives and make a difference in the world and I’m kicking around a ball,” Jahn said. “… It’s what motivated me to leave professional sport and pursue a life of service. I just wanted to live a purpose-driven life. It was kind of a remarkable epiphany I guess you could say.”
Jahn always felt like a giver — “I was born on Christmas, so I even grew up like giving gifts on my birthday,” he said — but after his athletic career he worked as a firefighter and medic for a year. While working as a firefighter, Jahn, also an amateur boxer, was sparring with a friend who was in the Army. Jahn wasn’t sure at the time what he wanted to do with his life and the friend suggested the military.
“It just clicked,” Jahn said. “I was like, yes, OK.”
The day Jahn happened to enlist in the Army was Sept. 11, 2003. The events on that day two years earlier formed more motivation for Jahn to serve his country. But apart from grandfathers that were veterans of World War II and the Korean War, Jahn knew little about military service.
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Seth Jahn posing for a picture while serving in the Middle East.
“I didn’t know anything about the military,” Jahn said. “… I always had an affinity for it, an appreciation for it, an admiration for those that served. I don’t think I considered myself quite man enough to take those vows.”
Jahn deployed three times to Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the Army’s 20th Special Forces Group. The 20th is an airborne unit, routinely conducting airborne operations. Jahn survived a double parachute malfunction in 2008, impacting the ground at 65 miles per hour. On Oct. 20, 2010, Jahn was injured in a six-hour long firefight with Taliban fighters. He suffered nerve damage along with spinal cord and brain injuries, leaving some doctors to tell him he would never walk again.
“It just shifted the trajectory of my life and it became one of the most arduous times of my life,” Jahn said.
Jahn was paralyzed for a year and a half and underwent all manners of physical rehab. The ordeal broke him down, he said, physically, mentally and emotionally. Jahn approached his recovery like a professional athlete, sneaking his way into the rehab center after hours to put in as much time as possible to reach his goal of walking again.
“Quitting has never been an option for me in my life,” Jahn said. “I had a lot of people that were counting on me and were relying on me to make a recovery and continue to be a leader in their lives. It became something that wasn’t so much about myself, it was using others to motivate my recovery.”
Jahn still had a desire to serve, but wasn’t physically able to rejoin the special forces. He worked for the government as a special agent and then a contractor from 2012-15, officially retiring from the military in 2014 after he was injured again by shrapnel from a rocket.
“I’d been eating, sleeping and breathing warfare for the last decade of my life and I just needed to decompress,” Jahn said.
One of the ways Jahn found that decompression was by moving to Thailand, living in a hut in Phuket and competing in Muay Thai, volunteering at a tiger rescue and elephant sanctuary, among other adventures, and enjoying a simpler lifestyle. Through a military rehab program, Jahn eventually returned to soccer and earned a place on the U.S. 7-a-side national team. Jahn played on the team that competed at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, and also the one that won the bronze medal at this summer’s Pan American Games Lima 2019. That latter medal he won immediately after serving on the security team for the U.S. women’s national team in France as it won the Women’s World Cup.
(L-R) Nicholas Mayhugh and Seth Jahn celebrate in the soccer 7-a-side bronze-medal match at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 31, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Jahn’s life has taken him many places he didn’t expect, but making it back on the soccer field and representing his country in a new way, this time as an athlete at the Paralympic Games, was one of the most unexpected given where he’d been just a few years before.
“When I was in Rio at the Maracana stadium, about to go in with 75,000 people singing and dancing and chanting, I had that same moment of just reflection of laying in that hospital bed being broken in every dynamic,” Jahn said. “And then I look up and it’s like a scene out of a movie, the flag was perfectly silhouetted in the tunnel, you can hear the roar of the crowd, and I look down at the crest on my chest, and I look down at where the American flag was on my combat sleeve, and it was just that moment of six years ago being paralyzed in a bed to now I’m walking into the Maracana stadium and representing the country for the Rio Games.”