By Annette Gomes, Warrior Care and Transition May 31, 2017
To say Staff Sgt. Gary Smith is an optimist is an understatement.
After sustaining multiple injuries to his knees, spine, and head over an 18 year period, Smith, the avid athlete searched for a competitive athletic program that would foster his love of sports without furthering impacting his injuries. His search ended when he began participating in adaptive reconditioning sports at Fort Bragg's Warrior Transition Unit.
"The daily missions of an Airborne Infantry Soldier took a toll on my body. I attempted to learn and try as many of the programs that the adaptive reconditioning program offers," Smith said. "I know sports and activities can give you purpose and give you something to strive for. This program has given me so many opportunities from learning how to play golf, to losing weight and to meeting new people from all over."
Smith has become an advocate for adaptive reconditioning, taking opportunities to introduce other WTU Soldiers to the many activities in the program. He recalls how adaptive reconditioning helped veteran (Spc.) Dustin Barr reach his full potential.
"When Dustin arrived at the WTU, he was really depressed. He wasn't active and he never wanted to leave his room. After getting to know him, I brought him to a pick-up wheelchair basketball game, he started playing and fell in love with it." Smith said. "His progression in the healing process really started moving forward fast. He was offered a scholarship and has played for the Army team. I've seen him on SportsCenter doing what he loves to do. The proudest moment for me was seeing how the sport impacted him. This program saves lives and helps Soldiers heal in the process."
While his fellow Soldier's transformation was instant, Smith found an answer to his own challenges through sled hockey. He joined the Carolina Hurricanes Sled Hockey team in 2016 and played the Forward position.
Sled (or sledge as it's referred to outside the United States) hockey was invented in Stockholm, Sweden, at a rehabilitation center in the early 1960s by a group of Swedes who, despite their physical disability, wanted to continue playing hockey. Sled hockey follows most of the typical ice hockey rules with exception to some of the equipment. Players sit in specially designed sleds that sits on top of two hockey skate blades.
"We have double and single amputees and even players who are paralyzed, but to see the look in their eyes when they get on the ice to skate is something you will never forget," according to Smith.
In October 2016, the Carolina Hurricanes Sled Hockey team won the National 2017 Disabled Hockey Festival in California.
"The day we won the National Championship was a moment that I will never forget, I have played sports all my life, but never won a State Championship or any other Championship,." he said. "We fought hard every game getting more and more confident with each win that passed until finally we had done it, National Champions. It was very surreal."
Smith says sled hockey is about more than the competition. It's a sport that offers hope and inspiration for those dealing with physical limitations.
"Being part of the sled hockey program has proven that the only thing that can hold you back in life is when you lose the desire. As long as the desire is in you then nothing will hold you back. If not in sled hockey then something else, but don't ever let the desire or the fighting spirit leave you."