From War In The Desert To 'Murder Ball On Ice'
It might not exactly be doctor's orders, but it made perfect sense to Josh Sweeney.
"If you hit somebody, you feel a lot better," he says, making his way off the ice from a grueling practice with the U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey team — a sport also known as "murder ball on ice."
Sled hockey might be the fastest sport in the Paralympics; players strap on to a tiny sled perched a few inches off the ice, balanced on one double-runner skate. They use two short sticks like ski poles to fly across the ice. Then the sticks flip around, with a hockey blade on the tip. Players can switch the puck quickly between left and right, and shoot from either side.
The Paralympics movement started with disabled veterans after World War II. Today, there are many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in Sochi with the U.S. team; Sweeney is one of them.
He lost both of his legs to a bomb in Afghanistan where he served as a Marine in 2009. Sports were far from his mind as he began months of rehab at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
"You're kind of in survival mode. You don't think, 'What am I going to be able to do?' " Sweeney says. "It's really just, 'Am I going to be able to get back up and feed myself and take care of myself?' "
Once he realized his life wasn't over, Sweeney tried a few adaptive sports. He'd played hockey in high school but had never heard of sled hockey. When he tried it, he was hooked, especially on the high-speed shoulder checking that's a big part of the sport.
"When I first got out there, the hitting — it was a little scary because you don't really know how to take it," Sweeney says. "But at the same time, I'd been in a hospital for so long and I'd been cooped up doing rehab. ... I was ready to take out some frustration."
Sweeney learned about the sport by watching another veteran, Rico Roman, who has been on the U.S. team for three years. He lost his left leg to a bomb blast during his third deployment to Iraq with the Army in 2007. Though Roman had barely ever been on ice before the injury, he soon started playing sled hockey with the San Antonio Rampage, a sled hockey team based near the Brooke Army hospital.
"It's just a blast out there," Roman says. "I love the toughness, the hitting. I love the speed of the game. I love the lingo — 'saucing the pass,' 'nasty dangles' ... these are all terms only a hockey player would know."
The team competing in Sochi, Russia, this year includes an all-veteran line, with Josh Sweeney, Rico Roman and Paul Schaus, as well as active-duty soldier Jen Lee in goal. And the pressure's on; four years ago, the U.S. took gold in the Vancouver Paralympics, and they're hoping to defend the title.
Either way, Sweeney — who had never even heard of the Paralympics before he started playing sled hockey — says getting on the ice has been a huge part of his recovery.
"It just made me feel so good," he says. "I was just in the moment. I forget about everything else in life — I was just playing hockey again."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, some uplifting new from Russia: Sochi is set to host another winter games. The 2014 Winter Paralympics opened there today. The Paralympic movement began with a small group of disabled World War II soldiers. The games have grown into one of the world's largest sporting events. This year, wounded veterans are competing again in five winter sports. The U.S. sled hockey team is featuring one line of all veterans who were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. These paraplegic athletes recovering from catastrophic injuries delight in barreling across an ice rink while trying to bludgeon each other off the puck. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on a sport that's called murder ball on ice.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The U.S. sled hockey team trained in Colorado last month before heading to Sochi.
RICO ROMAN: Full-contact, fast-speed hockey. It's just a blast out there.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)
LAWRENCE: Rico Roman has been on the team for three years. He lost his left leg to a bomb blast in Iraq in 2007. Right now, he's strapped tight into a tiny sled perched a few inches off the ice, balanced on one double-runner skate.
ROMAN: So, you got two blades that you're balancing on, then you have these two sticks with picks on the bottom. And you do, like, a rolling motion to cross the ice.
LAWRENCE: Roman gets up ahead of speed with the sticks, but then he flips them around, and they go from being ski poles to hockey sticks. He switches the puck between left and right sticks, and then he can shoot from either side.
Roman grew up in Oregon, never ice skated. He joined the Army after high school and deployed to Iraq three times. After the bomb blast that cost him a leg, he wound up at Brook Army Medical Center in Texas and tried a few adaptive sports as part of his recovery. And then he got on ice, and the love affair began.
ROMAN: I love the toughness, the hitting. I love the speed of the game. I love the lingo - saucing the pass, you know, nasty dangles, it's like puck handling. These are all, like, terms only hockey players would know.
LAWRENCE: Rico Roman has played with the U.S. team at games in Korea and Canada, but he also plays on a team in Texas, not far from Brook Army Hospital, where he's been able to help recruit other players, like Josh Sweeney.
JOSH SWEENEY: I went out, played, I watched Rico Roman play. And I was like, all right, so that's where, you know, that's where I can take this.
LAWRENCE: Sweeney was in the hospital after a bomb in Afghanistan took both his legs in 2009. He'd played hockey in high school before he joined the Marines. But after the injury, sports were the furthest thing from his mind.
SWEENEY: You're kind of in survival mode, so you don't think about: What am I going to be able to do? Or it's really just, you know, am I going to get back up and be able to feed myself and take care of myself and, you know, what am I going to have to do to get there?
LAWRENCE: Once he realized his life wasn't over, Sweeney still had to get through months stuck in a hospital bed. Hockey was a way to be an athletic young man again.
SWEENEY: When I first got out there, the hitting, it was a little scary, because you don't really know how to take it. You're not good at using your edges to keep yourself up. But at the same time, you know, I had been in a hospital for so long and I'd been cooped up doing rehab and therapy that when I got out there and said, you know, hey, can I hit, and they gave me the green light, it was on. I was ready to just take out some frustration and aggression. To hit somebody, you feel a lot better.
LAWRENCE: Sweeney had never even heard of the Paralympics before a U.S. sled hockey coach saw him play and all but ordered him to try out. He's glad he did.
SWEENEY: The competition that I was up against, the intensity, it just - it made me feel so good. And I was just in the moment. I forgot about everything else in life. And I was just playing hockey again.
LAWRENCE: Sweeney made the team at his first tryout, and now he's in Sochi, along with Rico Roman and two other vets on the U.S. team. And the pressure's on. The U.S. took gold in the Vancouver Paralympics four years ago. They're determined to do it again. First game is U.S. versus Italy, tomorrow.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.