By Joe LacdanMay 1, 2018
WASHINGTON -- While it is difficult to measure the impact participating in the Paralympics has had on Army veterans Rico Roman and Andy Soule, the athletes agreed that competing has given them new life after enduring their darkest moments.
In March, both athletes won Paralympic Gold at the 2018 Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. To commemorate their achievements, the athletes visited with the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. James McConville, April 24 at the Pentagon.
"We're real proud of you guys," McConville said to the athletes after a 10-minute casual meeting in his office.
Participating as Paralympic athletes has given the two medically-retired Soldiers a new support system to provide for their families, as well as helping them find new purpose and direction.
Roman, who competed this year in his second Paralympic games for the U.S. sled hockey team, said a return to teamwork has been significant for him.
"(Paralympic sports) really gave me something to look forward to it gave me something to have a drive. Also it gave me another community," said Roman. "Being injured, separated from your guys, you miss that a lot. Because that's instantly taken away from you. Having that sled hockey team really gave me that back: that brotherhood, that camaraderie, playing in team sports where people depend on you."
Soule, a competitive cross country and biathlon skier, lost both legs after getting hit by an improvised explosive device after he enlisted in the Army following the 9/11 attacks. The Texas native spent years in rehab before he learned about the opportunity to join the developmental camp for potential cross country Paralympic skiers.
Soule said he remembers that athletes from the Paralympic program regularly visited patients at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he was located.
"It gave me just the opportunity to be exposed to a whole bunch of different things," Soule said. "It showed us there was still life after injury; it was hugely beneficial to all of us who were there."
After quickly ascending in the sport, Soule reached the pinnacle of his career, March 14, at the 2018 Paralympic Games. Competing in his third Paralympics, Soule won gold in the 1.1 kilometer sprint, defeating USA teammate Dan Cnossen.
"Paralympic sport has given me a sense of purpose, an opportunity to see the world, (and) an opportunity to represent the United States in a good light and to be in a position to give back to a lot of people," Soule said. "I can do whatever I've set my mind on, and that's fantastic. I think a lot of what I've done comes from a place really of just realizing, after being injured, I'm still alive and (have) a resolution just to live a really good life."
Soule became the first U.S. biathlete to medal at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver, where he won the bronze. He recently announced his retirement from Paralympic winter sports and plans to focus on spending time with family.
Roman, a former staff sergeant, suffered a severe injury to his left leg after getting hit by an IED during a deployment in Afghanistan. After spending time rehabbing his injury at Walter Reed Medical Center, Roman later moved to San Antonio's Center for the Intrepid.
"When I was first got injured it was definitely the furthest thing from my mind becoming a Paralympic athlete," Roman said. "I think No. 1 was how am I going to provide for my family? What am I going to do? How am I going to get better? So those were the things on my mind."
Things quickly changed for Roman. During his stay in San Antonio, members of the U.S. Paralympic table tennis team visited patients at the center, leaving a lasting impact on him.
Roman began competing in wheelchair basketball and wheelchair football. Then, having never played or even watched a hockey game on TV, he decided to join the U.S. sled hockey program. After not making the cut for the 2010 Vancouver games, Roman made the team in 2014, later winning Paralympic gold.
Roman, a forward on the U.S. sled hockey team, won his second Paralympic gold in dramatic fashion. With 37 seconds remaining and Team USA down 1-0 to Canada, teammate Declan Farmer scored the game-tying goal. In overtime, Farmer scored again to give Roman another gold medal after winning at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
Roman, who speaks regularly about the benefits of the program for injured veterans, said he hopes to set an example for Soldiers who dealt with similar injuries.
"The enemy might have knocked us down but we got up and we're still going," he said. "Nothing's going to stop us."