Adaptive sports give you the opportunity to open other doors

By MaryTherese GriffinDecember 20, 2023

DoD Warrior Games 2019
U.S. Army retired Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson participates in seated shot put during the field competition, June 23, 2019 at the University of South Florida, during the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games in Tampa, Florida. Approximately 300 athletes representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Special Operations Command, United Kingdom Armed Forces, Australian Defence Force, Canadian Armed Forces, Armed Forces of the Netherlands, and the Danish Armed Forces are participating in 13 events throughout the competition. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Loggins) (Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Michael Loggins) VIEW ORIGINAL

FALLS CHURCH, Va;- “I don’t think recovery ever ends. You are always growing and should always be striving for growth.” That’s what Retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson believes as he reminisces over his journey from combat injury to recovery, competition to current-day activity, and how the world of adaptive sports was a game changer.

“Adaptive sports allowed me to stay in the Army with adaptive shooting. The commander of the US Army Marksmanship unit gave me an unofficial challenge. He said if you do a good job, we’re going to be able to get other people who are injured like you to be able to come here, and then we’ll have a whole team and a whole program.” Challenge accepted and delivered.

To understand how the infantryman came to this position in an adaptive sport that catapulted him to be one of the best in the world, you have to know how it started. During an Iraq deployment in 2003, Olson was shooting at insurgents who attacked his Humvee, and a grenade slid underneath. The explosion took most of Olson’s right leg. He remembers when he learned the magnitude of what happened to him.

Adaptive sports give you the opportunity to open other doors
(Photo courtesy US Army Marksmanship)

Retired Army Sgt.1st Class Josh Olson on the U.S. Army Marksmanship Team. (Photo Credit: Courtesy)

“The first time I ever put a prosthesis on at the clinic, I looked in a mirror. At that point, I was about sixty days into my recovery. In recovery, every day, it was a process to get me ready to put that prosthesis on, so that’s where my mind was. It wasn’t until I actually put one on and looked at it then I thought holy crap, this is my new life.”

He made it his goal to be able to do everything he used to do so people wouldn’t treat him differently. “I've never been different; I just have to live my life in a different way. I’ve learned you'll have good days and bad days and weeks and bad weeks, but your growth from your recovery process gets you through those tough times.”

That growth helped deliver the Army Marksmanship team and Olson’s ability to deliver on that initial challenge. “I was allowed to pitch our program to Gen Odierno, who was then chief of staff of the Army, and he said he didn’t know why we weren’t doing this already. He said, let's get this done. The remarkable part was when the Army was drawing down in 2012; we were able to create twenty-four new jobs for combat-wounded people to still stay in the Army, half as competitors and half as marksmanship instructors.”

In 2017, Olson discovered more with adaptive sports offered through the Army Recovery Care Program. “When I first learned about Invictus, I watched it on TV, and I had retired from shooting and thought I wanted to do that.”

He came to the Army Trials in 2017, made Team Army and Team US twice, and competed at Invictus the Netherlands and Invictus Germany. His competitive edge grew from shooting to track and field to team sports. He was a full-on adaptive sports athlete, which he is proud to share with others who might doubt their ability when life changes physically or mentally. Earning upwards of twenty medals to date is nice, but it means more, Olson says, if it inspires others.

Adaptive sports give you the opportunity to open other doors
(Photo courtesy Josh Olson)

Coach Josh Olson under the Friday night light in Washington State. (Photo Credit: Courtesy)

“It becomes a testament too, for people can look at what you’ve been through, and they might say, hey, if he can do it, I can do it, or the process is worth a shot.”

Taking that shot in adaptive sports is Olson’s wish for everyone who doubts their ability. “When you get injured, no matter what it is, amputation, TBI, or an unseen wound, you think all the doors in your life are closed. Adaptive sports allow you to open other doors to different paths, giving you new freedoms and independence.”

Twenty years after losing his leg, Olson is still succeeding in recovery and changing lives. “I wanted to be good at adaptive sports, so I used my GI bill to learn about exercise and became a personal trainer. I am now a high school football coach with a new sense of purpose, and I am able to volunteer and give back all year long. I am super blessed.”

He had an epiphany, he says, two summers ago after a weightlifting session. “I was just super happy. You know, none of us truly know why we are here…I truly believe the reason I got hurt and am still alive is to get to help people and help kids learn about exercise.”

After competing in the Paralympics, Warrior Games, and Invictus, Olson says all the medals he earned take a back seat to his current wins with students. “No success I’ve had in my life compares to when I watch one of my athletes when we work on something and keep working on it, and they fail, and the second they end up succeeding, THAT is the greatest achievement I’ve ever had personally.”