It's October 29, and there are 100 days until the start of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. The United States Olympic Committee has turned New York City's Times Square into a mini Olympic Village. More than 40 Olympians, Paralympians, and Olympic hopefuls are on hand to do interviews to get fans excited about the Games.
One of those athletes is Paralympic sled hockey player Rico Roman. He has a huge smile on his face as he talks about his road to Sochi. And when a reporter shows him a Topps card with his face on it, Roman's excitement is uncontainable. "No way! I haven't even seen that!" he exclaims.
Unlike many athletes, Roman, a 32-year-old Army veteran, never dreamed of competing in the Games, let alone having his own trading card. "But you get [hurt] overseas," he says, "and it gives you a totally different path."
A Devastating Injury
Roman enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school and served nine years, doing a tour of duty in Kosovo and three tours in Iraq. On February 22, 2007, he was manning a vehicle checkpoint about 40 miles southwest of Baghdad. As he was returning to base that day, his Humvee hit an explosive device, sending the vehicle flying.
Both of Roman's legs were severely injured. He was sent to recover at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., where doctors tried to stabilize his legs. But even after treatment, the injury caused a lot of pain. He talked to other amputees and decided it was better to live with one leg and less pain. A year after he returned from Iraq, Roman asked doctors to amputate his left leg above the knee.
Rookie on the Ice
Roman was determined to stay active. Not long after the operation, he began hand cycling (pedaling a three-wheel bike using his arms) and playing wheelchair basketball. He kept pushing himself and was encouraged to try other sports — including sled hockey.
Sled hockey is a lot like stand-up hockey: Five skaters to a side plus a goalie play three 20-minute periods on a regulation-sized rink with standard nets and pucks. The biggest difference is that players sit in sleds and propel themselves around the rink using their sticks, which are shorter than standard ones. The sticks have a shooting blade on one end and a sharp pick on the other that's used to dig into the ice to turn and build speed. Another key difference is that players can't skate backward, so the game is one of positioning and angling rather than the fluid, back-and-forth style of stand-up hockey.
Once Roman tried the sport, he was hooked. Soon, he was playing competitively. In 2009, he joined the San Antonio Rampage, an all-veteran squad in the Midwest Sled Hockey League. "Anytime he could get on the ice and learn something new and improve, he always took that opportunity," says Rampage coach Lonnie Hannah, a two-time Paralympic medalist. "You could see the progression."
Going for Gold
Despite his rapid rise in the sport, Roman didn't make the 2010 Paralympic team. That just made him even more determined to get to Sochi. Roman proved his value as a gritty, high-energy player who could get his team going with a big check or penalty kill. He was rewarded for his hard work when he was named to this year's U.S. squad, which will play in the Paralympic Games from March 7 to 16. "Rico's the kind of guy you want on your team," U.S. sled hockey coach Jeff Sauer says. "He's got a smile on his face. It's just a pleasure to coach him."
As the defending gold medalist, the U.S. team has its sights set on a repeat, but there's more at stake for the four military veterans on the team. These are guys who spent years defending their country and who are now once again suiting up for the U.S. — only this time they're doing it on an ice rink.
"I know some of the sacrifices that [the other veterans have made], so to be able to play a game is just great," Roman says. "We're here representing our country in another way."
For more coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics and interviews with Olympians, check out Sports Illustrated Kids' Guide to the Games!
Photos: Greg Forwerck, Mitchell Haaseth/NBC