12:18am

Thu August 30, 2012
Sports

Doing It To Win: Veterans Raise Bar At Paralympics

Originally published on Thu August 30, 2012 8:22 am

On a placid summer morning last month, before the Virginia heat could hit them, a former U.S. Marine and his partner lifted their rowing scull into the glassy water of the Rivanna River, near Charlottesville.

"First thing I do is take these legs off," said Rob Jones, who like his rowing partner, Oksana Masters, is a double, above-the-knee amputee. They're the U.S. team for mixed-doubles rowing at the 2012 London Paralympics, which started Wednesday.

They sit, take off their legs on the dock, balance on their torsos, lift, twist and gently drop the boat in. Then they put on special rowing legs and start a grueling workout.

Masters was born with deformed legs, later amputated. She's been rowing since she was 13. But Jones is a newcomer to rowing. Just two years ago, he lost both legs to a bomb blast when he was in Afghanistan with the Marines. Recovering in the hospital, he immediately began thinking about sports.

"I wanted to compete," he said. "When I compete, I do it to win. I wanted to get as high up the ladder as I could, and I really don't think there's anything higher than the Paralympics. So I set my goals high and went after it."

Hundreds of troops have lost their limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan; now as veterans, they're making their mark at the Paralympics. They account for about 10 percent of the U.S. team in London this week. The Pentagon is driving new innovation in prosthetics with money and research; Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, led the U.S. delegation to the London Games this week.

The prominence of vets in the Paralympics now is also thanks to pioneers like Melissa Stockwell, who lost her leg to a bomb in Iraq in 2004. By 2008 she was swimming in the Beijing Paralympics; by 2010 she was winning para-triathlons.

"The Paralympic movement is all about getting the word out and letting people recognize that just because someone lost a limb in Iraq seven years ago, that we're not sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves," she says. "We're out there competing at this huge level."

That's what Stockwell tells newly injured veterans in speeches she gives around the country.

"Sports played a huge role in my recovery," she says, "just being able to prove to myself that I could still be active, and to be out there with able-bodied athletes who still have all their limbs, and be out there in the same pool, and really kind of showing the world what I was still capable of."

Stockwell isn't competing in London. She's the world champion in para-triathlon, which isn't an event at the Paralympics. It will be in 2016 thanks to Stockwell and others. She follows a long tradition of veterans in the Paralympic movement, says Charlie Huebner, of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

"The movement [wouldn't] exist without injured military personnel and veterans," Huebner says. "The movement is going home to London where it was founded post-World War II, using sport as rehabilitation for injured veterans and service members."

Then and now, the real goal is to get wounded veterans involved in sports so they can do things like play ball with their children back home. Heubner says the participation of hard-charging combat vets like Stockwell, or rower Rob Jones, is also raising the bar at the games.

Gold medal or no, vets like Jones say they feel like nothing is holding them back.

"Nobody's told me that I couldn't do something," he says. "I say I want to do something, and they're like all right, let's figure it out."

Jones and Masters row in their first race Friday.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And some other news now. The 2012 Paralympic Games began today in London. The competition includes sports like cycling, power lifting, swimming and more.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The athletes at those games include veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mostly on the U.S. and British teams. Organizers of the games say the vets raise the caliber of the competition. Injured veterans say Paralympic sports provide inspiration and the prospect of a normal, active life. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: At an early morning workout last month on the placid Rivanna River in Virginia, a Marine veteran and his partner lifted their rowing scull into the water. It's harder than it sounds.

ROB JONES: Yeah, first thing I do is take these legs off.

LAWRENCE: That's former Marine Sergeant Rob Jones.

JONES: And I go down to one end. My partner goes down to the other end, kind of lift it in the air and flip it over.

LAWRENCE: Jones and his partner, Oksana Masters, both use prosthetic legs. They're the U.S. team for Paralympic mixed-doubles rowing. After they sit down, take their legs off on the dock, balance on their torsos, lift, twist and gently drop the boat in, then they put on special rowing legs and start a grueling workout.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUMPING)

LAWRENCE: Masters was born with deformed legs, later amputated. She's been rowing since she was 13. Jones is a newcomer to rowing. Just two years ago, he lost both legs to a bomb blast in Afghanistan. Recovering in the hospital, he immediately began thinking about sports.

JONES: I wanted to compete. Yeah, I mean, when I compete, I do it to win. I wanted to get as high up the ladder as I could, and I don't really think there's anything higher than the Paralympics. So I set my goals high and went after it.

LAWRENCE: Hundreds of troops have lost their limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, as veterans, they're making their mark at the Paralympics. They account for about 10 percent of the U.S. team in London this week. And U.S. military money and research is driving new innovations in prosthetics. The prominence of vets in the Paralympics now is thanks to pioneers like Melissa Stockwell. After a bomb blast in Iraq took her leg, Stockwell swam in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

MELISSA STOCKWELL: The Paralympic movement, it's all about getting the word out and letting people recognize that just because, you know, someone lost a limb in Iraq seven years ago, that we're not sitting around, you know, feeling sorry for ourselves. We're actually out there competing at this huge level. And I think it just raises the awareness.

LAWRENCE: She says sport convinced her that life would go on, and that's what Stockwell tells newly injured veterans in speeches she gives around the country. Stockwell isn't competing in London. She's the world champion in para-triathlon, which isn't offered at the Paralympics. It will be in 2016, thanks to Stockwell and others. She follows a long tradition of veterans in the Paralympic movement, says Charlie Huebner of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

CHARLIE HUEBNER: The movement doesn't exist without injured military personnel and veterans. That's why the movement exists today. The movement is going home to London, where it was founded post-World War II, using sport as rehabilitation for injured veterans and service members from World War II.

LAWRENCE: Then and now, the real goal is to get wounded veterans involved in sports, so they can do things like play ball with their children back home. And Heubner says the participation of hard-charging combat vets like Stockwell, or rower Rob Jones, is also raising the bar at the games. And gold medal or not, vets like Rob Jones say they don't feel anything can hold them back.

JONES: Yeah, nobody's told me that I couldn't do something. I say I want to do something, they're like, all right, let's figure it out.

LAWRENCE: Competition began today in London. Rob Jones and Oksana Masters will row in their first race tomorrow. Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program