Against the Odds: 4 Athletes Who Overcame Enormous Obstacles

Posted 01 Jun 2010 in News

Standing Tall

Staff Sgt. Heath Calhoun lost both legs in a 2003 grenade attack in Iraq. But that didn’t stop him.

After the rocket hit, I was lying in the back of the truck, and I could see that my legs were messed up—my trousers were ripped, and I was bleeding pretty bad. I tried to stand up. A bunch of men from my unit held me down, and I went into shock.

I ended up getting a double amputation above the knees, then being flown to Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. Before I got hit, I’d been a good runner, but now I didn’t know if I’d walk again. After months of physical therapy, I should have been using prostheses. But there are challenges, in terms of balance, gait, and fit, for people who have lost as much of both legs as I have, and I couldn’t seem to learn how.

When I’d been in the hospital for five months, the Disabled American Veterans held a winter sports clinic in Aspen, Colorado, and I attended with my wife. I’d skied a few times in high school, but nothing major. At the clinic, they taught me how to use a monoski.

Skiing was the first thing that gave me my legs back. I could use the same ski lift as everybody else. The only limitation on which slope I went down was my skill level. I didn’t develop much proficiency that weekend, but I had a blast.

When I went home to Clarksville, Tennessee, four months later, I continued physical therapy. In the summer of ’04, I rode a handcycle for about 40 miles in a fund-raiser for the Wounded Warrior Project. I enjoyed it so much that the next year, I cycled across the country with a couple of other guys. It took us two months. Seeing the U.S.A. one town at a time was very cool.

That winter, I trained in a monoski camp for people with disabilities. But I still wasn’t walking, and I figured there was something about me that was causing the problems. Then I found a prosthetics company that had worked with a lot of bilateral above-the-knee amputees. I got my new legs that July 2006—complete with micro-processors that adjust for activity level and terrain—and I haven’t used a wheelchair since.

The prostheses allowed me to branch out into other sports. In 2007, I won silver medals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes at the Endeavor Games. I’ve been on a relay team in a couple of triathlons and played in a golf tournament. But my main sport is skiing. I live in Clarksville with my wife and three kids, but I’ve spent the past three winters in Aspen, competing in Alpine events with financial support from the Veterans Paralympic Performance Program.

When I’m out on the slopes, it feels good to know that I ski better than most people who have their legs. Being disabled is a relative term—you can still do plenty with what the good Lord has given you.

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