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Military Paralympians crush the odds and become world-class athletes

Jun. 27, 2008 - 10:28AM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 27, 2008 - 10:28AM  |  
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TEMPE, Ariz. — It's barely 8 a.m. and already the sun has begun to broil this sprawling college town on the east side of Phoenix. Gabriel Diaz de Leon, his forehead dotted with sweat, retreats in his wheelchair to a patch of shade beside the shot put pit at Arizona State University's track and field complex. From here, he can comfortably monitor his fellow Paralympic hopefuls, particularly 23-year-old Carlos Leon. "Find yourself a high point, man," he yells to Leon, a former Marine sergeant who's become something of a protégé. "C'mon now!"

This is a familiar setting for Diaz de Leon. His legs, one of which is tattooed above the ankle with a Team USA logo, have been paralyzed since 1984 when, as an Army corporal, he was thrown from a jeep that came under fire during an operation in Honduras. He competed in his first Paralympics four years later, and over the next 20 years he became one of the games' most revered competitors, participating in five altogether and earning a host of medals along the way.

But here in Tempe, where dozens of disabled track and field athletes from the U.S., Canada and Venezuela spent June 12-15 vying for a trip to September's Paralympics in Beijing, this aging giant humbly admits that the sun is now setting on his throwing career. Younger, stronger athletes, including a handful of Iraq war vets, are posting numbers so impressive even one of the all-time greats can't keep up. Yet as he fades into the background, Diaz de Leon beams with pride for the guys he's helped coach and mentor. Such humility is a ubiquitous trait among Paralympic athletes, regardless of their sport.

"I've been doing this so long, it's just natural for me to try to help," Diaz de Leon, 46, says. "I look at it as a personal challenge to make these guys better."

The truth is, he's a natural at it. Two of his pupils, both of whom also were permanently confined to wheelchairs after being injured while serving in the military, have been picked to compete in their first Paralympics following strong performances at the trials and in other international competitions throughout the last year. Leon, the leatherneck, set a world record in discus, while former Army Spc. Scott Winkler owns one in shot put.

Both men cite the elder's tutelage and encouragement as a principal reason for their success. They look at Diaz de Leon as sons look to a father and try their best to follow his example both on and off the playing field.

Before his final throw in the shot ring, Winkler, who was paralyzed from the chest down in 2003 after he fell off an ammo truck in Tikrit, Iraq, presses the small globe over his head and whispers the word "Beijing." Then he looks to Diaz de Leon, nods and says, "This one's for you, Gabe." It lands just shy of 11 meters, enough to earn the "elite" classification he'd need to be nominated for the team. Moments later, the men embrace.

Tough choices

The stories out on the track are no less compelling. Take 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Brian Pezze, for instance. His leg was mangled last year in a car wreck on Interstate 40 in North Carolina, not far from his post at Camp Lejeune. A doctor gave him two choices: Keep the leg and walk with a limp, or amputate it and, with the assistance of a prosthetic limb and ample rehab, enjoy a more active life.

"I made my decision in 15 minutes," says Pezze, a member of the 8th Engineer Support Battalion. "I mean, sports are my life." As a high schooler in Illinois, Pezze played football and baseball, ran track and was a member of the wrestling team. After the accident, he was assigned to Lejeune's Wounded Warriors Barracks, a recovery facility specially outfitted for injured Marines. Now, just nine months after his surgery, Pezze has progressed enough to sprint in both the 100- and 200-meter dash.

Sure, his leg is sore sometimes, and he can't help but wince when he pounds down the straightaway, but Pezze knows it's a part of the recovery process. He's determined to complete the 2˝ years remaining in his commitment to the Corps, which encouraged and paid for him to attend the trials — and who knows, he says: Maybe the service will sponsor him to do this full time.

That's not unheard of. Just six runners to Pezze's right in the 100-meter dash, Army Sgt. Jerrod Fields knows Beijing is out of the question, "but I'm looking forward to London" in 2012, he says confidently. The Army seems committed to giving Fields that chance. He's assigned to its World Class Athlete Program, which nurtures soldiers with Olympic and Paralympic potential, and gets paid to train and compete full time. The service is poised to promote Fields, 25, later this summer.

As a member of the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, out of Fort Stewart, Ga., Fields was wounded in 2005 when a roadside bomb detonated beneath his Humvee in Baghdad. And like Pezze, he received a grim prognosis and made the unenviable decision to amputate his left leg.

When he returned home to his native Chicago two years ago to participate in his old summer basketball league, Fields was dismayed by the limitations the prosthesis imposed on him. "But I got a lot stronger," he says. "And now I'm jumping further, I'm jumping higher and I'm running faster than I ever have in my whole life."

Just rewards

There is a familiar refrain among those who came here to compete: Don't dwell on the past. Sure, everyone faces some sort of physical adversity. And yes, they endure hardship and pain. But this is no pity party. Paralympic sports are a celebration of ability, optimism and magnificent determination.

Navy Cryptologic Technician (Interpretive) 1st Class Casey Tibbs, for example, lost his right leg after a motorcycle accident in 2001. Three years later, he earned a trip to the Athens games and brought home a gold medal in the 4-by-100 meter relay and a silver in the pentathlon. And a solid showing here at the trials earned him a nomination to join the team in Beijing.

When he's not training or competing, Tibbs, 28, is a peer mentor at Naval Medical Center San Diego. There, he reaches out to battle-scarred service members and shares his story of overcoming the worst that life can throw at a person. Each of the folks here is proof that it's possible not merely to move on, but to thrive.

Sometimes all it takes is a vote of confidence. Three years ago, just a few weeks after he returned to Marine Corps Base Hawaii from a tour in Iraq, Carlos Leon dove into the Pacific Ocean and slammed into a bed of coral, breaking his neck. He left the Corps in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down. Today, he's on the discus range here at the Paralympic trials, wearing the same red, white and blue jersey Diaz de Leon wore during Paralympics past.

It's a poignant gesture. "The man is my hero," Leon says, glancing down at the letters "USA." "From the very beginning, he told me I could do it."

When the prodigy's 22-meter throw in Tempe established a new world record, Diaz de Leon simply clasped his hands and flashed a look of paternal pride. The torch had been passed.

"Hopefully my story can be an inspiration," Leon adds. "Just as Gabe's story was to me."

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