Program shows disabled vets that yes, they still can
Voices shouting instruction and encouragement echo off the walls, accompanied by the sound of blades carving ice. Sticks tap the surface. Mouths exhale fog inside the freezing rink.
Shut the eyes, and you might as well be in San Jose watching the Sharks play hockey.
And this was a hockey game, all right, but it was at Skatetown in Roseville. The players wore helmets, handled the puck, passed and shot. They were physical, and they were fighters.
Only these fighters were United States servicemen — and one servicewoman — participating in “Their Spirit Inspires,” an annual program that gives wounded warriors, as they’re known, an opportunity to adapt to and overcome injuries sustained in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The program, put on by Disabled Sports USA Far West of Alpine Meadows, just completed its seventh summer event, which for three consecutive years has included a day of sled hockey at Skatetown. Disabled Sports USA also has held six winter events.
Doug Pringle knows from experience how valuable the program is. Now the president of Disabled Sports USA Far West, he lost a leg in Vietnam. World War II veterans took him out of a hospital and taught him how to ski.
“Learning to ski on one leg was the first thing I did,” said Pringle, who lives in Lincoln. “It really started me thinking about what I could do instead of what I couldn’t. It changed my life. Vigorous, challenging sports are great for your self-image. This event is exactly about that. We want these guys and gals to come here, do things they probably didn’t think they could do or never even heard of and come away feeling better about themselves and their abilities.”
There were 17 servicemen who traveled to Sacramento from all over the country for this event. They learned kayaking, canoeing, sailing and other water sports at Lake Natoma; water skiing at Locust Lakes in Pleasant Grove; cycling, swimming, track and field and scuba diving at Independence Field.
Disabled Sports USA brings in well-known athletes like paraplegic climber Mark Wellman to work with the servicemen.
“They’re great role models, and we want these guys and gals to meet these individuals who are high achievers in sports; not that we care that they become high achievers,” Pringle said. “They should know that they could if they want to.”
At Skatetown, Paralympian Dave Conklin spent time on the ice teaching fundamentals to a group of players. During the ensuing game, he made a cross-ice pass to a serviceman who sledded toward the goal and flicked a shot over the sprawled goalie.
He shoots, he scores.
“These fellas are the best, brightest and were the most able. Now they want to get back to being able,” said Conklin, dressed in his red, white and blue Team USA sweater. “Giving them hockey, which is a team sport, just like the service, contact, thinking, they love it. Sharing this with them has been a love for me for 24 years. Representing the country from their standpoint and being a Paralympian, I have a deep regard for them. I want to share what I love with them, so they can achieve the best they can achieve.
“They’re fast learners, especially the physical side of it. They love to mix it up.”