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From Afghanistan To Sochi, One Marine's Path To The Paralympics


The crisis in Ukraine has prompted the U.S. and Britain to cancel their official delegations to the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes that are set to get underway later this week in Sochi, Russia. The athletes will still participate in sports from wheelchair curling to sled hockey, where the athletes are strapped onto sleds that balance on two skate blades. They use two sticks to propel themselves across the ice and handle the puck. It's really fast and really physical.

JOSHUA SWEENEY: It's full contact. It's - it gets pretty intense.

BLOCK: That's Joshua Sweeney, who plays left wing on the U.S. sled hockey team. Sweeney is a former Marine. He was on patrol in Afghanistan in 2009 when he stepped on an IED and lost both of his legs above the knee. We reached him in Sochi today to talk first about how he got into sled hockey.

SWEENEY: I grew up playing hockey in Phoenix, Arizona. I started out roller hockey in junior high and then moved on to ice hockey in high school. Shortly after high school, I joined the Marine Corps and I was injured in 2009. And I had the privilege to go down to San Antonio, Texas for rehab. And while I was there, they had a local sled hockey team that was an all-veteran team and they invited me out to play. And as soon as I saw them on the ice and saw the way they were moving and just the freedom that they had, I knew that I was going to be playing hockey again.

BLOCK: Was this something that you would have considered, Josh, when you were injured, when you lost your legs after that explosion in Afghanistan, that you would be doing something like this?

SWEENEY: No. I mean, I never thought I'd be competing at such a high level of sport, you know, after being injured. But just the love of the game and the, you know, all the hard work that I've put in is really, you know, brought me to where I am and I'm glad. I mean, I think sled hockey has definitely taken me from just living life to excelling in life and, you know, I'm glad that I found it.

BLOCK: I heard you say once that you felt sled hockey saved your life.

SWEENEY: Yeah, it definitely did. You know, when I was going through rehab, before I found out about sled hockey, you know, it was just kind of one of those daily things. You go in, you do what you have to do and you get out of there. And it just gets kind of monotonous and that was only maybe after three months. And then about fourth month that I found sled hockey, I started putting in a lot more extra time. And then as soon I was getting out on the ice, you know, the very next day would be, well, what can I do off the ice to help me on the ice? And it's been like that ever since.

BLOCK: Yeah. And there are a couple of other wounded veterans on the Paralympic team, too, on the U.S. Paralympic team, right?

SWEENEY: Yes, and that is huge. I mean, being able to have that camaraderie with these guys and, you know, Paul Schaus, Rico Roman, Jen Lee, we all served in the military. And it's just awesome that we can have a second chance to represent our country. And, you know, for Paulie, Jen and I, we played hockey when we were younger, so it's even twice as cool that we can play it again now.

BLOCK: Do you talk much with your teammates about how they were injured?

SWEENEY: You know, the more time you spend with each other, you kind of figured it out. And, you know, with the military guys, yeah, it's usually one of the first things you ask, you know, like where were you when you got hurt, this and that. And I think it really helps to kind of talk about what happened and just kind of work through those things that you may not want to bring up to anyone else. But since we're all in the same team, we all feel like we're brothers. It's a lot easier to discuss.

BLOCK: Yeah. And for some of your teammates, it would have been, what, childhood injury, disease, cancer, things like that.

SWEENEY: Yeah. And so, that's another interesting part is that, you know, there are so many different disabilities that I never knew about until I made this team. And then thinking that maybe I had it rough or that, you know, some of these other guys had it rough, well, they have been going through these challenges since birth. And it's like, I just can't believe that I, at one point, even felt like this was something, you know, why me, you know, when these guys have been dealing with these since they were born. And they're great at it and they've really helped to put me in the mindset of, you know, it's not what you can't do. It's what you can do.

BLOCK: These are going to be your first Paralympic Games. What do you think it's going to be like when you take to the ice for that first game on Saturday?

SWEENEY: I think it's going to be awesome. Anytime, you know, you get in a new arena, especially one as big and as amazing as the one they built here for us, when you first get out on the ice, I mean, you just can feel it. It's electric in the air and, you know, you're out there and you're moving around, and you feel like you're on top of the world. So I know all of us are really excited to get out here and start playing these games and get down to the competition and the whole reason that we came here.

BLOCK: Well, Josh, best of luck.

SWEENEY: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BLOCK: Joshua Sweeney will be skating with the U.S. men's sled hockey team at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. The games start on Friday.


This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.