Accepting Challenges

Hundreds of veterans recently took part in the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo.

By Eve Neisen – Dept of Veterans Affairs

Thomas Sagpao wheels out to the docks to get into his adaptive mono-ski in Snowmass Village, Colorado. (Photo: Shane Michael Smith, College Mesa University).

Finding a spinal tumor as a teenager is as devastating as it is unexpected.

What is more unexpected is to wake up permanently paralyzed after a biopsy. The good news is the tumor is benign. The bad news is that Thomas Sagpao would never walk again.

Sagpao found a tumor in his spinal cord when he was just 19 years old while serving on active duty as a U.S. Army cook.

“I was so tired, I didn’t even realize what happened,” Sagpao said. “I woke up and the doctors came in. They asked me to wiggle my toes, but I could barely do it. They told me later that they didn’t know how long the paralysis was going to last.”

Taylor is strapped in and ready to hit the slopes during the NDVWSC in Snowmass Village, Colo. (Dept of Veterans Affairs photo).

The paralysis is going to last forever. In Thomas’s world, that’s not such a bad thing.

He wakes up every morning to get ready to work out. While it may take him awhile to get ready these days, he goes straight to the gym. He gets his daily endorphins from adaptive CrossFit.

“You can pretty much modify any move in CrossFit,” he says.

Adaptive CrossFit isn’t the only way Sagpao challenges himself athletically. He skies using adaptive equipment at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic. As a Texas resident, snow is scarce and the Clinic is the only place Thomas can participate in winter activities.

Adaptive CrossFit and winter sports are just the tip of the spear when it comes to his abilities. He also mentors other veterans with spinal-cord injuries. His most recent encounter is 23-year-old Thomas Taylor.

“I don’t want anyone to feel left behind,” Thomas said. “I wanted him to learn stuff on his own because that’s the only way he’ll learn what’s best for him. I told him to stay positive and he’ll be taken of. I’m a rolling testament of what’s possible for spinal-cord injuries.”

Taylor is also a U.S. Army veteran who suffers from a spinal-cord injury because of an accidental gunshot to the neck.

He speaks incredibly clear for a man who could only click his tongue to communicate three short years ago. He is a first-time participant at the Winter Sports Clinic.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Taylor says with a big smile. “I can’t wait to do it again.”

It hasn’t always been fun for Taylor as his rehabilitation was a process of acceptance and courage.

“You have to adapt to the situation because if you don’t, you’ll stay in a negative place,” said Thomas. “When I accepted this is who I am now, I could go forward. You can’t change the past, but you can make the future as best as possible.”

Sagpao continues to encourage Taylor while at the Winter Sports Clinic and wants to continue helping other people with spinal cord injuries get active.

“Life is amazing!” Sagpao exclaims. “There are so many things that I can do now that I never would have done before.”

Having such a positive outlook on life allows Sagpao to live an adventurous and spontaneous life on wheels. He touts the people in his life for creating a positive environment. He’s returning the favor by continuing his education.

In the fall, Sagpao plans to attend Galveston College in Galveston, Texas, for kinesiology, the study of the mechanics of body movements.  He says that he wants to understand how bodies move better in an effort to improve wheelchair-bound people.

“The people around me improve my life,” Sagpao said. “I want to give back.”

The camaraderie of the Winter Sports Clinic is evident in Sagpao’s and Taylor’s relationship. It’s a full circle experience that happens once a year in Snowmass Village, Colo. Over 400 veterans from all over the United States gather to get active through adaptive skiing, scuba diving and sled hockey among others. It’s a chance for veterans to unite as a group with similar abilities to share experiences, tips and tricks and make life-long friends.

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