During his first days at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, Stefan Leroy looked around at his fellow amputees -- many from his division, the 82nd Airborne -- as they wheeled through the halls and attended physical therapy sessions. The now-retired Army sergeant had just lost both of his legs while on active duty in Afghanistan. "My goals were to walk again, to run again and, honestly, to realize this isn't the end," Leroy says.
Five years later as he prepares for the 2017 Invictus Games (Sept. 23-30) -- an adaptive sports event featuring veterans and active duty military from around the world -- he can look back and say the initial adjustment turned out to be a lot harder than he thought it would be. But it is events like Invictus that have helped him through it. "Invictus encourages me to keep pushing myself to be a competitive athlete, while also supporting others," says Leroy, who will compete in swimming, track and field, cycling, rowing and volleyball in Toronto. "A guy I swam and ran with before is on the Marine Corps team -- he got up recently on his legs and we ran his first 5K with him. It's because of events like these that we could encourage him -- a lot of it is being there for other people."
That mentality is what drove Leroy, in part, to enlist in the Army in 2010. "I was pretty young when 9/11 happened, and that was a dynamic shift in American culture," says Leroy, a California native who lives in Jupiter, Florida. "I thought that even if I wasn't going to be fighting the people who attacked us, fighting the terrors of terrorism was a noble thing."
On June 7, 2012, while on a routine foot patrol in Afghanistan, Leroy's unit split into two groups. One of the groups hit two IEDs almost simultaneously, and Leroy's group ran to help. Leroy carried a stretcher holding Army Pfc. Brandon Goodine, who was gravely injured in the blasts, and as they neared the helicopter landing area, Leroy stepped on an IED. Instantly, Leroy lost both of his feet, and his left femur was shattered. The explosion also injured his right eye and fractured his left arm. Goodine died at the scene.
Leroy was eventually transferred to Germany, where he had an initial surgery to amputate his legs -- his left leg above the knee, his right leg below the knee. Then he went on to Walter Reed.
A former high school athlete and Eagle scout, Leroy, 26, thought he'd learn to walk on prosthetics quickly. Instead, he struggled through a two-year journey of breakdowns. "At the beginning, there was a lot of physical pain, as well as trying to understand what the future means," Leroy says. "I really stuck to the positive, which was, 'I have all these people around me who are amputees and recovering. I'm only missing my legs, others are missing a lot more.'"
Leroy also focused on learning how to reclaim his independence. "Something that is characteristic of him is that he doesn't want people helping him if he thinks he can do it himself -- and gain something from doing it himself," Ben Leroy, Stefan's twin brother, says. "When he got a wheelchair, he hated us pushing him. He really wanted to control his recovery and to be self sufficient."
Two months into his stay at Walter Reed, Leroy discovered hand cycling. With the help of the nonprofit Achilles International, he completed the Boston Marathon in 2013 as a hand cyclist. Determined to stay active, he also began swimming. He had a final surgery on his legs in September 2014 and returned to prosthetics that November. In January 2015, he received his first pair of prosthetic running blades. A month later, he ran his first 5K, then a 10K, a 10-miler and, nine months later, a half marathon.
Even as he added mileage, the transition wasn't easy. "Initially, I wanted to throw my legs away because they were so uncomfortable during races," Leroy says. Gradually, he adjusted, alternating running and walking while he competed.
It also helped that he gained a running partner. In 2014, he met Katie Smith. She was a volunteer with Project Hero, an adaptive cycling program in which Leroy participated (he now regularly participates in cycling events). She eventually became his girlfriend. "She is my No. 1 cheerleader, and has always encouraged and motivated me through my recovery," says Leroy, who ran the 2016 Boston Marathon in 6 hours, 23 minutes and 6 seconds.
While Leroy enjoys the marathon distance, he'll compete in several sprint track events at Invictus. "When it comes to endurance events, I think that's where his abilities really lie," says Jonny Wright, Leroy's trainer. "But he's pretty explosive as well. I think he will turn heads at Invictus. People will see this skinny guy and write him off -- and then realize that was a mistake."
Leroy -- whose ultimate goal is to complete an Ironman -- said that while he's competitive by nature, these Games aren't only about winning. "The environment is amazing; so many of the athletes see people with similar obstacles to overcome and they want to support them," Leroy says. "It's about encouraging my friends and also taking it to the next level -- seeing how far I can push myself there."