Christina Gardner is a U.S. Army veteran and an all-star sled hockey player
By Courtney Verrill
Christina Gardner (right) fights for the puck during a sled hockey game against the Phoenix Coyotes Sled Hockey team. (Photo by: Courtney Verrill)
A spinal cord injury, skull and facial fractures and frost bite that led to double amputation from the knee down didn’t stop U.S. Army veteran Christina Gardner, 34, from being the athlete she is today. Gardner is a returning player on the USA Women’s Sled Hockey team. For the past five years, the Lewiston, Maine native has been traveling the world alongside the USA team and getting as much time on the ice as she can.
“We were just outside Oslo, Norway for the Women’s World Ice Sledge Hockey Festival,” says Gardner, referring to her most memorable game. “We lost to Canada in an early game then beat the Europeans the next two games and ended up facing Canada again for the final. We beat them by one with half a second left in the game!”
Gardner has worked hard over the past five years, which has been successful as she was appointed co-captain this season.
“I’m not big on the title, but I like the girls knowing that they can turn to me for anything,” says Gardner. “I would have done anything for anyone before, but now they reach out regularly and I love being able to serve them.”
Not one, but two teams
Gardner is not only the co-captain of team USA, but she also runs the New England Warriors Sled Hockey Program where she plays alongside disabled veterans as well as younger athletes. The Warriors won Nationals last season, and this season won league champions but due to lack of funds they are unable to make the trip to Nationals.
“Running my program helps with the national team by helping me train regularly and because I’m more of a standout at this level I find myself handling the puck a lot more which has been one of my weak spots on team USA,” says Gardner. “Being on the U.S. team helps the local team because I can bring a little more funds and more donated ice for my guys to use. I also can teach them principles I learned at the top level to help them reach their goals quicker.”
Christina Gardner (left) helps assemble one of her player’s sled before a game for her sled hockey program, the New England Warriors Sled Hockey. (Photo courtesy of Claudia Murray photography)
Working alongside adorable puppies
Gardner has been volunteering at a puppy farm known as Friends of Varney’s Labs for the past three years. She does yard work such as shoveling, raking and fixing fences. On top of the yard work, Gardner manages the social media accounts, sales, vaccinations, and helps deliver newborns. She works on the farm during the week because her weekends are slam packed with sled hockey. She came across the volunteer position after her younger brother, who is a firefighter, responded to a fire at the farm. After the fire, Gardner fostered puppies for a while and helped clean up and she’s been volunteering ever since.
“I love the animals,” says Gardner. “They’re constantly teaching me things, and I love learning. I feel valued there, plus they don’t mind Moxie around at all!”
Moxie, a Golden Retriever and Gardner’s service dog for the past seven years, joins her and plays with the puppies and sneaks in treats from the boss at the farm.
“Moxie mostly hates it!” laughs Gardner. “Except that the boss feeds her constantly and she gets to play with her best friend, Dutchess.”
The U.S. Army
Gardner joined the U.S. Army as a Military Police officer at a young age. Growing up with a father who was a licensed firearms dealer, Gardner was accustomed to weaponry and was very physically fit.
“I joined partly because the idea of finding a job and affording the cost of living and paying back student loans was scary, but the military was a sure thing,” she says.
Her family also has a strong history of service. Her grandfather and uncles all served, which had a strong influence on her decision.
“My grandfather was so proud of his service and so passionate about our nation that making that decision wasn’t hard at all,” says Gardner.
Bouncing back from a major injury and finding herself again with adaptive sports
Like many other people, Gardner faced some extremely hard times after returning from her service. At the age of 24, Gardner experienced a line of duty injury that caused a number of deficits. It took her several years of physical and speech therapy to come back from her injury.
“Adapting to civilian life from the structure and trust of the military was hard enough,” says Gardner. “Going from meeting the male fitness standards to being deemed severely handicapped was devastating. . . I didn’t know where I fit in since I wasn’t really physically able to do anything and all of the veterans I saw at the VA were considerably older.”
Luckily for Gardner, she found and befriended a Vietnam veteran and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) representative that she said “dragged me back into life.”
“He kept inviting me to stuff and I didn’t think I could really do anything, but I finally gave in,” she says. “It was amazing. There were disabled people kayaking and waterskiing and there were younger vets there. It went up a lot from there – I finally found social groups and adaptive sports I could excel at. It was still rough dealing with the decaying legs and limitations, but since my amputations last year my life has been amazing. I can run again and hike. I’ve been surfing and snowboarding. It’s not all easy and perfect but it’s been great overall.”
For Gardner, playing on team USA has been an amazing experience when it comes to the sisterhood.
“The best part aside from the opportunity to compete and have some pride and self-confidence is the sisterhood,” says Gardner. “The bond and support we all have for one another is amazing. We treat each other like family and get to experience the world together. We’re all there for one another when we have surgeries or setbacks and we’re all there to cheer each other on when times go right.”
When asked if there was a woman Gardner admired, she referred to some of her teammates.
“There’s two women I look up to a lot,” says Gardner. “Kelsey DiClaudio, who is hands down the best female sled player in the world, from Pittsburgh and Erica Mitchell from Chicago. Mitchell’s determination and passion for the sport is why they started our women’s program in the USA in the first place.”
Advice for a newly injured woman
“For recently injured, don’t give up hope,” she says. “I know that’s much easier said than done and I have definitely hit some very low points, but if you can keep searching until you find where you fit in again and find things you’re good at and/or passionate about you’ll find a whole new world you may have never known was out there!”