The U.S. men's sitting volleyball team celebrates a point during a match against Peru at the 2019 Parapan American Games.
Sitting volleyball players John Kremer and James Stuck have the unique opportunity to represent the United States on some of the world’s biggest stages. From the Paralympic Games to world championships, they’ve appeared all over the world, bringing pride to the nation.
Formerly wearing the stars and stripes as a way to protect their country, the pair share pride in representing the United States on the battlefield first. Yet, it’s a similar pride.
“It’s amazing to go from the battlefield wearing the flag to sport’s biggest stage, still wearing that same flag,” Stuck said. “The pride I have is beyond words.”
Kremer, a retired member of the Navy who comes from a military family, was struck by a landmine in 2010, causing him to lose both of his legs below the knee.
“My mom, dad and all my uncles were in the military,” Kremer said. “Being seen in the same limelight as those guys and girls is awesome. And it’s not just my family, but everyone in the U.S. who has served. It’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of that. I take it very seriously.”
Stuck, a retired Army serviceman was struck by a roadside bomb in 2005, causing him to lose his right leg, but not his infectious spirit. Now he gets to share his volleyball life with his wife and family.
“Without them, I don’t have this opportunity. Veteran’s Day is special, but it’s more special with them.” Tearing up, Stuck adds, “This day is special because I get to do what I do, and my kids get to watch me. It’s fantastic.”
Both servicemen found a new home in Paralympic sports while they were recovering from their injuries, as do many of Team USA’s Paralympians.
It was never easy, and as Kremer tells the story often, he knows the journey only made him stronger.
“I thought I was going to be in a wheelchair for the longest time after losing both my legs, Kremer said. “Then they told me I’d be up and walking around soon, but I didn’t really think it would be that soon.”
Kremer started walking about five weeks after his injury, and it motivated to keep going and keep moving. He pushed himself to stay active, and one thing led to another.
“I got hooked on the Navy Wounded Warrior program, which led to the Wounded Warrior Games in Colorado Springs. At this point I was playing many sports - wheelchair basketball, shooting, swimming and sitting volleyball.”
Volleyball drew him in.
“Once I started playing sitting volleyball, it was pretty much over for me,” Kremer said. “And it just so happened that a coach I had on the Navy sitting team was one of the development national team coaches.”
That coach convinced Kremer to try out, but Kremer wasn’t sold just yet. He didn’t want to do too much after he medically retired from the Navy except enjoy his family and relax.
Eventually Kremer decided to play more and more. He traveled to watch a scrimmage the national team had scheduled with the University of Central Oklahoma when he was sitting on the bench, taking in the game when the coach asked if Kremer wanted a challenge.
“The coach asked if I wanted to be the libero, and I asked if he was kidding,” Kremer said. “I thought I was just there to watch, but I got in and played.”
That was 2015, and Kremer has remained on the national team since.
“I have the same pride as I did before,” Kremer said. “I get to wear the flag again - just in a different way. I am one of the 12 guys who represent the U.S. in volleyball. I really struggle to explain the feeling of pride that brings me.”
Moments like the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Paralympic Games still leave Kremer without words.
“We were walking out, and I was seeing guys I knew from the military and the past,” Kremer said. “I saw Brad Synder, a swimmer, and I met him a few times in military training actually. It was cool to share that moment, that experience, with him. It was a weird full circle moment.”
Stuck shares similar sentiments, and after his injury he started playing as many sports as he could to help him recover. He gravitated towards team sports, such as wheelchair basketball, and landed on sitting volleyball in the long run.
After meeting a former national team captain and attending various Paralympic summits, Stuck moved his family to Edmond, Oklahoma, to commit to the program fully.
Since his commitment, Stuck has numerous accolades, including threeUSA Volleyball Male Sitting Athlete of the Year honors. Impressive in its own right, Stuck says it’s all about the people who came before him.
“I have to pay respect to everyone before me,” Stuck said. “It’s not so much about what I’ve done, but it’s about how I can pay it forward to the next group.”
With more military Veterans on the roster than any other Paralympic sport, the men’s sitting volleyball team looks to players like Kremer and Stuck for guidance and leadership heading into the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Fresh off a Parapan American Games silver-medal performance, Kremer and Stuck know they can do more. And after an eighth-place finish at Rio 2016, the team hopes to bounce back to land on the medal stand in 2020. The team’s last chance to qualify is in March, and both athletes are looking forward to the opportunity.
“I feel great, and we’re all very positive going forward,” Stuck said. “Over the years, we’ve worked hard, and knowing who has qualified, we feel good.”
After all, players like Kremer, Stuck and their teammates who have dedicated their lives to Team USA, one way or another, know it takes pride and courage to continue fighting. In many ways the sentiment is different, and in many ways it’s the same.
“I still take the same pride being on the national team as I did in the armed forces.” Kremer said. “I still think you have to carry yourself to a different standard because you are representing your country. I get to be the person who represents the United States.”