From Purple Heart to Gold Medal Hockey Player

US Army veteran Rico Roman turned an injury into a new opportunity to represent his country.

Posted: Jan 27, 2018 9:55 AM
Updated: Jan 27, 2018 9:55 AM

"Not in a million years did I ever think I'd be a hockey player," Rico Roman said. And he's not just any hockey player -- he's a gold medal winner with the US National Sled Hockey team.

His path to the rink started after the life-changing decision: to have his left leg amputated after he was injured in an IED blast in Iraq.

"Everybody is always cutting out bad habits, like, 'I've got to stop smoking' or 'I've got to give up these treats,'" said Roman. "But for me, it was like, 'I got to cut off my leg, unfortunately, because it was holding me back.'"

In the path of danger

Before he represented the United States at the Paralympic games, Roman served his country in another way -- as a US Army staff sergeant, doing three tours in Iraq.

"I was running a vehicle checkpoint and I decided to be the lead vehicle back to the patrol base," recalls Roman. "My vehicle struck the IED and I sustained injuries to both my left and my right leg."

Doctors saved his legs. But they were not in good shape, especially his left leg.

"It was stuck straight out," he said. "I had plates, bolts and had to use a cane. I had to sit on the edge of the chair and driving was almost impossible because my leg was stuck straight out."

"I knew that my leg, the way it was, it wasn't going to work because I was a little too active," Roman said.

Regaining freedom

After the amputation, Roman began rehab, learning to walk on his new prosthetic and regaining his freedom.

In an effort to help get him back up to full speed, Roman was invited to join a 150-mile bike ride with Operation Comfort, a group that supports wounded veterans.

"I thought it was a sick joke because I didn't think I could ride a bike, but they have a bike with three wheels and you pedal with your arms. I had so much fun with it."

Eventually, some of the guys that Roman rehabbed and trained with took notice of his natural athletic abilities and made a power play to get him to try sled hockey.

"I said 'no' at least 10 times. I just had no interest in playing hockey," Roman said. "But the guys kept asking me to come."

Sled hockey is very similar to stand-up hockey, but players sit in sleds in order to get up and down the ice. Players use two sticks to propel themselves, much like cross country skiing. "It requires a lot more core strength because you're balancing on those blades," Roman explained.

After taking to the ice for the first time, he immediately warmed up to the game. "The stuff that I love the most is going out there when a guy had the puck and knocking him off," he said.

"I was hooked. It was so fast," Roman recalled. "I think what made me stick with it the most was that it gave me that brotherhood back. It gave me that camaraderie and sense of teamwork."

Power play

Roman took to the game fast, but didn't propel his way to the top immediately. He didn't make the cut for the US Paralympic sled hockey team the first time he tried out in 2010.

"I told them straight up, I have no excuses, I'll be back next year," he said. "And I was."

Sure enough, Roman came back and made the US national team, helping them bring home the gold in 2014.

Now Roman has his eyes on the prize again, hoping to score another gold medal in the 2018 Paralympic games. More than just a chance to win another medal, he sees it as a chance to continue the mission he started when he joined the army -- and to prove that not even a life-altering injury can slow him down.

"I never would have gotten a gold medal or a chance to represent my country again if I would have said no to sled hockey," he said. "It's another way of serving my country, and I'm really fortunate to have those guys push me in this direction."

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