By Justin Widhalm | Nov. 12, 2015, 2:08 p.m. (ET)
 
Paralympic hopeful Justin Widhalm, a retired Sgt. 1st Class in the U.S. Army, encourages Team USA alumni to support today's athletes by visiting TeamUSARegistry.org.  

An open letter to Team USA alumni from U.S. Paralympic hopeful Justin Widhalm

Representing my country at the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto was one of the proudest moments of my career. As I stood on the podium to receive my bronze medal in the track cycling time trial, I thought about all of the ups and downs that had led me to that moment.

A decade ago, I was serving my second deployment in Iraq as a Sgt. 1st Class in the U.S. Army. I suffered a traumatic brain injury and multiple concussions during fourteen separate improvised explosive device (IED) blasts, and survived a drop from a helicopter.

When I returned home from Iraq, I wasn’t sure what the rest of my life had in store. My memory was damaged, and I had to relearn basic skills for everyday life. At first I wasn’t able to walk or speak clearly.

In 2009, I tried handcycling for the first time, and I was told that was as far as I would get. Naturally, I set out to prove the experts wrong – and soon I was competing in track and road cycling on an upright bike. Today, I am a U.S. Paralympics track cycling national champion, Parapan American bronze medalist and hopeful for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Every Olympic and Paralympic dream is unique. Next year in Rio, each proud member of Team USA will have his or her own story about the dedication and sacrifice it took to qualify for the Games.

Still, there are common threads – one of them being the enormous financial commitment it takes to compete on the world stage.

As Olympians and Paralympians, you know this better than anyone else. That’s why today, I’m asking you to help support Rio hopefuls like me by making a gift at TeamUSARegistry.org. At this website, you can choose a symbolic gift to donate to a Team USA athlete – anything from a sports medicine massage to a pair of boxing gloves. 

In reality, you’re not donating the actual item – you’re contributing to the broader Team USA Fund, which supports U.S. athletes by providing direct financial aid, operating three U.S. Olympic Training Centers and funding our individual National Governing Bodies of sport.  

Today’s Team USA athletes are truly fortunate. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation was created in 2013 to transform the level of philanthropic support for American athletes. The foundation’s ultimate goal is to one day provide funding to every national team athlete in all sports.

But there is still a long way to go toward that goal, and we’ll be competing in Rio in just months. Most U.S. Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls earn less than $20,000 a year, far less than what it takes to train and compete. And as you know, lucrative sponsorships don’t come easily.

We’re not doing this for the money – we’re doing it to achieve a dream that only a tiny handful of athletes every four years are able to experience.

A decade ago, my life was changed. But through the Olympic and Paralympic movements, I now have this amazing opportunity to represent my country in a whole new way. Competing at the Games is a rare opportunity to inspire people around the world to be their best, and I want to make the most of that chance.

To those of us striving for our first Games in Rio, you are our role models. You’ve paved the way for us to succeed, showing us what is possible at the highest levels of our sport.

We’ve been inspired by you – as kids watching our idols on TV, or as hopefuls watching the London or Beijing Games and seeing what’s achievable just around the corner.

We know you’re behind us – so if you can, please show us your support by making a gift today at TeamUSARegistry.org. We can’t wait to make you proud in Rio, and to one day join your ranks as U.S. Olympic and Paralympic legends.

On behalf of all of today’s athletes, thank you for your support!
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To donate, visit TeamUSARegistry.org and pick the perfect present for Team USA.