Retired Army Sergeant Christy Gardner, also a double amputee after a traumatic injury, has found a new way to represent her country: on the ice as a sled hockey player.
After graduating from college in 2005, Gardner joined the U.S. Army. Being on the front lines and helping others had always been where she wanted to be, she says.
A year later, however, while in the demilitarized zone in the Korean peninsula, Gardner had a traumatic injury, fracturing her skull and punctured her spinal cord. Her injuries resulted in losing feeling in both legs below the knee, and severe seizures. At the time, she was 24.
“When I hit the ground, I pushed my jaw up through the base of my skull on this side. So, I damaged the front and side of my brain, and also some of the speech area in the lower, in the bottom portion of your brain,” she told ESPN in an interview recently.
“To come out and have them say, ‘You’ll never be physically capable of taking care of yourself’ — that was horrible. I was depressed,” she said.
Eventually, she had both legs amputated below the knee.
Before the life-changing incident, Gardner had been a student athlete at CW Post College in New York, excelling at both lacrosse and field hockey. She also played soccer while in college.
During her recovery, the 35-year-old Lewiston, Maine resident had to wear a protective helmet. Later she was given a golden retriever named Moxie, who was trained to alert her to her forthcoming seizures. Gardner and Moxie quickly formed a bond, yet she still struggled.
“I was so restricted in what I was allowed to do,” she said. “I was so lonely.”
Then in 2009 she met Neal Williams, a Vietnam veteran whose back had been crushed in seven places during combat. He had stopped to console her as she was crying in a hallway at a local Veterans Administration hospital.
“That was a life changing moment for both of us really,” Williams told ESPN. “I essentially told her that there’s life after injury. … You aren’t going to be able to do all the things that you did before, but you’re going to do most of them. And some of them you’re going to do better — but you have to adapt.”
With Williams’ encouragement — he’d taken up adaptive skiing — and Moxie always close by, Gardner became more active, earning another degree at the University of Southern Maine and getting back into competitive sports.
She now plays on the U.S. women’s sled hockey team, and for the U.S. sled Warriors. Sled hockey is played just like typical ice hockey, though competitors play in sleds that sit on top of two hockey blades.
Gardner is also participating in the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games, a competition for wounded, ill and injured service members, currently underway in Chicago.
“To be a part of the unit and bring pride to myself and to our nation has been extremely important for me and very rewarding,” Gardner said.