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News | March 7, 2014

Paralympic powerhouses: Sochi-bound veterans boost biggest contingent yet

By Jon R. Anderson Air Force Times

With athletes ranging from an active-duty Navy SEAL injured in Afghanistan to a former Coast Guardsman paralyzed in a plane crash, the U.S. is dispatching its largest contingent ever to the 2014 Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia, which will begin Friday and run for a week.

The 80-member team boasts 58 men and 22 women, including six guides for visually impaired athletes.

Of those, 18 are veterans representing all five branches of the military, including two athletes still on active duty.

“It is a very exciting time for the Paralympic movement, and we are honored to announce the largest team we have ever sent to a Paralympic Winter Games,” said U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun, announcing the final team roster.

“I am confident that this group of talented athletes is going to represent our country well both on and off the ice and snow. With the expanded platform of television coverage provided in partnership with NBC, these athletes are not only going to captivate the country, but also inspire the next generation of athletes following in their footsteps.”

Military strong

Military athletes will compete throughout the nine days of Paralympic competition in all five sports: alpine skiing — which includes newly added snowboarding events — biathlon, cross-country skiing, sled hockey and wheelchair curling.

The vast majority of military athletes suffered injuries in the line of duty while serving downrange. Three were hurt in motorcycle accidents.

The Nordic skiing team fields the greatest percentage of veterans, with half of the 16-strong squad relying on their military experience in biathlon and cross-country skiing events.

Navy Lt. Commander Dan Cnossen is among them. The Naval Academy graduate from Topeka, Kan., was serving as a platoon commander with SEAL Team 1 in 2009 when a bomb blast claimed his legs in Afghanistan.

One year later to the day, he ran a mile with his new prosthetics for the first time. In 2011 he tackled the New York City Marathon. Now stationed at Fort Carson, Colo., where he works with 10th Special Forces Group, Cnossen will make his Paralympic debut competing in biathlon and cross-country skiing.

Among Cnossen’s Nordic skiing teammates is retired Air Force Sr. Airman

Sean Halsted. A combat controller, he was injured after falling 40 feet out of a helicopter while fast rope training during an exercise in 1998.

Growing team

Team USA’s Paralympic contingent has grown by 30 athletes since the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, where only five military athletes competed.

Part of the increase comes with a wider competitive field this year.

Retired Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Tyler Burdick is among Team USA’s top shredders looking to medal as snowboarding makes its debut at this year’s games.

Burdick had one week left of his third deployment when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, resulting in serious injuries to both feet.

U.S. Olympic officials have pushed hard in recent years to bring more veterans into the Paralympic arena, working with the Pentagon and veterans groups to provide more opportunities for disabled troops and veterans, said Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics for the USOC.

“We have been able to begin building a deeper pool of Paralympic competitive athletes,” Huebner told OFFduty. “This focus, investment, and addition of snowboard has resulted in a growth of the competitive talent pool and team size for the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games.”

Among the most seasoned athletes on Team USA is alpine skier and retired Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Devlin-Young, who is headed to his fifth Paralympic games. Delvin-Young was stationed in Alaska when he was injured in a plane crash in 1982.

Completely paralyzed from the knees down and partially paralyzed below his waist, his injuries haven’t stopped him from racking up an impressive medal count in top-level competition.

'A new unit'

Team USA’s sled hockey squad is also heavy with warrior athletes, with four of 16 puck-slingers coming from the military.

With his left leg amputated above the knee following a 2009 motorcycle accident, Sgt. Jen Lee is a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. Now in his third season with the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team, this will be his first Paralympic games.

He is joined by retired Marine Sgt. Josh Sweeney. An avid hockey player since he was a kid, Sweeny figured his days on the ice were over after his injury in 2009.

Sweeney was a month into his second deployment in when he was struck down in a bomb blast in Nowzad, Afghanistan. Both his legs were later amputated.

“If you had told me back in 2009-2010 that I would be on the ice again, playing hockey, I would probably have thought you were a little crazy,” Sweeney said in a recent profile for Team USA. “It was a really hard time. I was going through a lot. I mean, how could I play hockey, given that I was lying in a hospital bed, really hurt? But then again, I never rule anything out in my future. I go for it. You never know where life takes you. I’m living proof of that.”

He credits his military experience with getting him to the Paralympic games.

“I know being a Marine gives me the discipline and focus to be a good hockey player,” Sweeney said. “I get to be a leader, help the younger guys, and I love that. It’s that same feeling of camaraderie, being with other guys who are on the same mission as you. That’s something you really miss when you get taken away from it, like I did when I was injured.

“Hockey has given me a ‘unit’ again. And I get a little emotional when I think what it’s going to be like when we get on the ice in Sochi and hear the national anthem, wearing our USA uniforms. That’s going to be super-special.”