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Meet your military Paralympians

Active & former troops go for gold in London

Sep. 4, 2012 - 04:22PM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 4, 2012 - 04:22PM  |  
Wolfe Russell of the United States competes in the Men's Ind. Recurve-W1/W2 Archery event in 2008.
Wolfe Russell of the United States competes in the Men's Ind. Recurve-W1/W2 Archery event in 2008. (Getty Images)
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Without all the glitz and fanfare, without all the media and prime-time coverage, the "other" London Games — the Paralympics — are set to begin Aug. 29.

More than 4,000 athletes will converge for tests of strength and determination, entering into heated competition arguably even more impressive than the events that just ended under the five-ring banner of the 2012 Olympics.

"Our Paralympians embody what it means to be an American," says U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun. "They will compete with the pride and honor that is inherent in representing the United States of America, inspiring Americans young and old with their stories of triumph."

Current and former military service members competing in the 2012 London Paralympics are:

ARCHERY

Jerry Shields, former Army staff sergeant

Event: Men's compound W1

With half of his body largely paralyzed from a stroke 16 years ago, Shields pulls the drawstring of his bow with his teeth. At 57, the former Army National Guard crew chief is one of the three oldest athletes in the Games. Since his injury, Shields has learned to rely only on the strength of his left arm and mouth to pull back the 45-pound draw weight on his bow. He practices five hours a day, six days a week. Does it hurt? "Yeah," he says with a laugh.

Russell Wolfe, former Army staff sergeant

Event: Individual recurve

Wolfe's 11-year Army career ended after he broke his back in a hunting accident. "I searched for years to try and find my way," he told PBS recently, explaining that sports finally provided the spark he needed. Wolfe didn't make the podium in 2008 in Beijing but came back the following year with a bronze at the International Paralympics Committee Archery Championships.

Lewis ‘Dugie' Denton, former Army private first class

Event: Compound men's open

An Army mechanic, Denton's back was crushed in an accident working on a 5-ton truck while deployed to Kuwait in 1992. A lifelong marksman who grew up in Montana, Denton gravitated to competitive archery in 2006. His accomplishments include a win at the National Indoor Championships in 2010; a bronze in the 2011 Parapan American Games; and a second-place finish at the Paralympic qualifiers this year. "I hope to bring home some hardware," he says of his prospects in London. "I don't know how I'm going to do. I'm just going to go shoot."

SOCCER SEVEN-A-SIDE

Marine Cpl. Rene Renteria

Doctors kept Renteria in a medically induced coma for three weeks after his head was crushed in car accident in January 2011. The brain injury means the radar repairman will be medically retired this year, but in the meantime, he says he's looking forward to representing his country as the Corps' only active-duty athlete in this year's Paralympics. A member of the all-Marine soccer team in 2010, the 23-year-old forward has totaled four goals in his past four international appearances for Team USA.

Gavin Sibayan, former Army sergeant

Sibayan survived several roadside bombs during a tour downrange and later suffered a stroke. He will play as a defender on Team USA's seven-man soccer squad.

ROWING

Rob Jones, former Marine Corps sergeant

Event: Trunk and arms sculls

Jones lost both legs to a roadside bomb while working as a combat engineer in Afghanistan in 2010. As a bilateral above-the-knee amputee, Jones competes in adaptive rowing with his partner, Oksana Masters. Dubbing themselves "Bad Company," the pair took home gold at their Paralympic qualifier earlier this year.

TRACK & FIELD

Oscar ‘Oz' Sanchez, former Marine sergeant

Events: Hand cycling (road race, time trial, relay)

After six years in Marine Corps special-ops reconnaissance units, Sanchez was waiting for his SEAL training class date in 2001 when a hit-and-run driver threw him from his motorcycle. Known to friends as "Oz," the five-time hand cycling world champion took gold in hand cycling's 40-plus-mile road race in Beijing. Since then, he has racked up eight more golds in top-level competitions. "I'm getting lean and mean and I'm going to peak just at the right time," Sanchez says, on his way to a final training camp before London. "I'm in better shape than I was in Beijing. I'm going for gold."

Steven Peace, former Navy lieutenant commander

Events: Cycling (tricycle time trial, tricycle road race)

A stroke in 2006 knocked out much of Peace's right side, but he commands his three-wheeled cycle with just one arm at speeds of up to 45 mph. He's won gold at the Parapan American Games in Mexico and recently the World Cup in Canada. He landed his spot on Team USA with a second-place finish at the National Cycling Championships in Augusta, Ga., in June.

Jennifer Schuble, former Army cadet

Events: Cycling (500 meters, 3-kilometer pursuit, road race)

Schuble was a junior at the U.S. Military Academy in 1999 when she took a blow to the head in hand-to-hand combat training. Her traumatic brain injury was followed by an automobile accident that crushed her right arm. Then she found out she has multiple sclerosis. "I have just learned to continuously adapt in order [to] still be able to participate," she writes on her website. Since starting her para-cycling career in 2007, she has won four gold medals, four silvers and one bronze in top-level competitions, including a record-setting win in the 500m in Beijing.

WHEELCHAIR FENCING

Mario Rodriguez, former Air Force staff sergeant

Event: Category A foil

Rodriguez was a Russian linguist in the Air Force in 1985 when surgeons discovered a malignant mass in his pelvis while repairing injuries from a motorcycle accident. They were able to cut it out, along with part of his upper leg bone. Sanchez discovered fencing after deciding to take the leg off in 1992, winning his first national title within three years. "No individual could do this alone," he told a reporter for NBC Latino recently. "It takes a community to make an athlete. It also takes building blocks of failures to reach success."

WHEELCHAIR RUGBY

Will Groulx

A former Navy petty officer second class, Groulx's career as an engineer was cut short by a motorcycle accident in 2001. He started playing wheelchair rugby to help keep in shape, and it wasn't long before "murder ball" became much more than just a good workout. Groulx made the 2004 Paralympic squad, taking bronze in Athens, and led his team to a gold medal in Beijing.

SHOOTING

Eric Hollen, former Army staff sergeant

Event: Pistol

After nine years in Army special ops, Hollen left active duty to work the family horse farm in Tennessee. A tractor rollover crushed his pelvis and broke his back, paralyzing both legs. His trigger finger is just fine, though. He's been named USA Shooting's Paralympic Athlete of the Year for the past two years and is ranked seventh in the world in the 10-meter air pistol SH1 event. He trains as a resident at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., alongside his 14-year-old daughter, Payton, an aspiring downhill skier.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson

Events: 10-meter air rifle prone, 50m air rifle prone

Olson fought to stay on active duty after a 2003 rocket-propelled grenade blast cost him his legs. He earned a position in the Army Marksmanship Unit, going on to become the first soldier with a physical disability admitted into the Army's elite World Class Athlete Program. Since 2007, he has won two gold medals and a silver in top-level competitions.

SWIMMING

Navy Lt. Brad Snyder

Events: 100-meter freestyle, 400m butterfly

It would be easy to compare Snyder to swimming hero Michael Phelps. It just wouldn't be fair to Phelps. When Phelps started racking up Olympic golds in 2004, Snyder was at the Naval Academy. When Phelps was in Beijing four years later, Snyder was on his way to Iraq, leading an explosive ordnance disposal team. And when Phelps was preparing for London, Snyder had already been to Afghanistan, defusing bombs for five months. Then in 2011, as he tried to help two Afghan soldiers wounded in a bomb blast, his world suddenly exploded — and then went dark. In less than a year since, it's been Snyder's turn to rack up medals. He took home four golds in swimming at the Warrior Games alone, plus three golds in track and field. At the Paralympic swimming trials in June, he set world records for vision-impaired athletes in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle.

TRACK & FIELD

Angela Madsen, former Marine private first class

Events: Javelin, shot put

With four consecutive world championship rowing titles, it's hard to imagine Madsen being described as a "waste of human life." That's how one doctor described her, she says, after a botched surgery left her languishing in pain with a damaged spinal cord. "At that particular time in my life, his description fit. ... I was not doing anything to improve my situation," she writes on her website. Now, she insists, her blessings outweigh her problems. "I love this life. If I could go back in time and change it, I would not."

Centra ‘CeCe' Mazyck, former Army staff sergeant

Event: Javelin

One of Team USA's standouts, Mazyck began throwing in 2003 after being injured at the Advanced Airborne School at Fort Bragg, N.C., fracturing her spine after becoming entangled with another member and crashing into the ground. Hurling a javelin she has dubbed "Ms. B," Mazyck throws from what she calls her "throne," a specialized chair designed to keep her balanced as she fires the staff across the field.

Christopher Clemens, former Navy petty officer third class

Events: 100 and 200 meters, long jump

Clemens was supporting SEAL teams in Afghanistan in 2004, when his brain was battered in a rocket-propelled grenade blast. By this time last year, he was tipping the scales at just shy of 300 pounds. That's when he connected with a nonprofit training and competition organizer and things started to turn around. He has trimmed down to 200 pounds and is primed to compete in three track-and-field events.

Scot Severn, former Army specialist

Events: Shot put, javelin, discus

Severn was struck by lightning in 1989 while on Army Reserve duty at Camp Grayling, Mich. The jolt threw him 40 feet, caused internal and external burns and rendered him quadriplegic. While qualifying for his Paralympic debut in 2008, Severn set a new American record in the shot put.

Scott Winkler, former Army specialist

Events: Discus, shot put

Winkler, a food service specialist from Pittsburgh paralyzed from the chest down after falling from an ammo truck in Iraq in 2003, set a world record in shot put at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in 2007. The next year, he placed fifth in Beijing. He's since taken home two Parapan American golds.

SITTING VOLLEYBALL

Kari Miller, former Army sergeant

Miller was home from deployment for the holidays in 1999, when her car was hit by a drunk driver. She lost her best friend and both her legs. By 2004, she began playing wheelchair volleyball. Within two years, she was on the Paralympic squad that took gold at the 2009 Euro Cup and silvers in Beijing and the 2010 World Championships. "It says ‘adaptive,' not ‘easier,‘" she says. "We're doing the same sport as anyone else, but with more athleticism."

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