Paralympians on Ice
Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native who covered his first Spurs game in 1981 for The Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper. He spent 26 years in the newspaper business -- 21 of them covering sports -- before joining the marketing department at Our Lady of the Lake University in 2009. His Spurs.com column will appear every Wednesday.
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Josh Sweeney is a sled hockey center and double amputee who can score. Jen Yung Lee is a goaltender with one leg who blocks shots. Rico Roman is a physical defenseman and disabled veteran with a knack for the net.
Sweeney, Lee and Roman not only hold starring roles for the San Antonio Rampage sled hockey team, they’ve been nominated to the 18-man U.S. Paralympic roster that will compete in the Paralympic Winter Games March 7-16 in Sochi, Russia.
“It’s a great feeling to be here in San Antonio together, training and working hard, hopefully to bring back the gold,” Roman says.
The 2010 U.S. team won Paralympic gold, defeating Japan in the championship game, 2-0. But that victory was secured without Sweeney, Lee and Roman, each of whom were military veterans just learning the sport four years ago in San Antonio, thanks to Operation Comfort, an organization that supports wounded service members from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2010, the three men joined the Rampage Sled Hockey team, the first to be comprised of all wounded military veterans. The team formed six years ago. But over the past few seasons, Sweeney, Lee and Roman have led the Rampage to two Midwest Sled Hockey League titles and two second-place finishes at the USA Hockey National Championships.
“From humble beginnings in 2007, the Rampage Sled Hockey Team has evolved into one of the best teams in the nation,” said Ryan Snider, director of business operations for the Rampage. “And now, to have three team members competing for Team USA at the 2014 Paralympics is both rewarding and exciting for everyone involved.”
The Rampage offer strong fundraising support for its sled hockey team. In 10 seasons of Military Appreciation Night, the Rampage have raised nearly $250,000 to benefit Operation Comfort and the sled hockey team.
“With the military community in San Antonio, the Rampage Sled Hockey Team and our Military Appreciation Night have provided us great opportunities to honor those currently serving and our veterans,” Snider said. “Josh, Jen and Rico are outstanding young men who we are very proud of and honored to be associated with.”
Here are the stories of the Rampage sled hockey players who will be donning the Red, White and Blue in March:
It happened in Iraq, on his third tour of duty, in February 2007. Army staff Sgt. Rico Roman was riding in a Humvee that ran over a roadside bomb. Shrapnel from the explosion ripped through his legs. The accident occurred about one month before he was scheduled to go home.
Roman did not lose his legs. But the pain he experienced during rehabilitation did not relent, and the injury left him with a left leg that he could not bend. “I couldn’t sit in a theater and watch a movie because my leg was straight out,” he says “I couldn’t drive a car. I couldn’t sit on an airplane.”
To improve his quality of life, Roman chose to have his left leg amputated below the knee. Soon after, he was running (with the aid of a prosthetic) and playing soccer with his children. “I’ve been cruising ever since,” he says.
Months after the amputation, Roman was asked to try sled hockey. A native of Oregon, he knew little about the sport but gave it a try. He made such a quick impression, Rampage sled hockey coach and former Paralympian Lonnie Hannah suggested Roman audition for the U.S. national team. On his first attempt, Roman made it.
The funny thing is, Roman, a natural athlete, didn’t fully understand what he was doing. “Even when I made the national team, I didn’t know anything about the sport,” he says. “I was still learning the fundamentals of the game, still learning the lingo. I don’t come from a big hockey community. So I had to learn and I continue to learn.”
Jen Yung Lee
He used to be a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter mechanic. Now he’s a full-time athlete, a veteran who represents the military and his country as a sled hockey goaltender. That’s the short version of the Jen Yung Lee story.
The rest of the story includes a motorcycle accident, a leg amputation, rehabilitation, the adventure of learning a new sport, trying out for the U.S. national sled hockey team, failing, trying again -- and succeeding.
“I feel wonderful and grateful to be part of this because I never would have thought I’d get selected to play at this level five years ago,” Lee says. “But here I am.”
Lee has no ice hockey background. He did not play the sport as a kid, though he did play goalie for an inline roller hockey team in elementary and middle school. “The concept is the same -- stop the puck,” he says. But that’s about it. He had to learn the game from scratch.
In 2009, Lee suffered a serious leg injury in an off-duty motorcycle accident in Savannah, Ga.
Doctors amputated above the left knee. While undergoing rehabilitation in San Antonio, he was invited to try sled hockey with the Rampage. Lee bit and fell in love with the game and made the U.S. national team on his second attempt.
“I’m in the World Class Athlete Program,” he says. “My job in the Army is to train full-time for the Paralympic team. I’m training and competing for my country.”
Sweeney stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan. He lost both legs. It took three hours for a helicopter to reach him. He was flown from one hospital to another before reaching San Antonio, where he began rehabilitation at Brooke Army Medical Center. “It’s a pretty standard story,” Sweeney says.
It isn’t. In less than two years, Sweeney got married, skipped his honeymoon, started a new sport, joined the San Antonio Rampage sled hockey team and made the U.S. national team.
Just like that.
Quick study? Well, it isn’t often a guy makes the U.S. team on his first attempt -- less than a year after taking up the sport. But then Sweeney isn’t your ordinary guy. He served as a Marine sergeant. He played ice hockey in high school. He figured sled hockey could be learned quickly, and sure enough, he scored four goals in the first game he played.
“This will be my third year on the national team,” Sweeney says. “I’ve been playing the sport 3 ½ years. I already knew the game of hockey. All I had to do was get used to the sled and learn how to use the sticks.”
A native of Phoenix, Sweeney is training seven days a week with Roman and Lee. “Working together,” he says, “has brought our game to another level. We want to bring back the goal medal. That would be awesome.”