Weekend Warriors: The Sport That Saved Christy Gardner's Life
A few years ago, Christy Gardner's future looked bleak.
She'd suffered multiple, traumatic injuries while serving overseas in the Army in July of 2006. Though she'd rather not talk about the specifics of what happened, because of "the nature of the mission we were on," her injuries were grave.
One leg was damaged so severely that amputation was necessary, and she no longer had feeling in the other leg below the knee because of spinal damage. Her skull had been fractured in two places, and the resulting brain trauma wiped out most of her memories. She lost her ability to speak and the hearing in her left ear. She had to re-learn words, spelling, grammar and math from the third-grade level up. She had frequent, intense seizures. Two fingers on her left hand were gone.
At one point during a meeting with her medical polytrauma team after nearly four years of rehabilitation, she was told she'd never be able to live an independent life. "I got pretty down for a while," she says.
But about that time, another patient, a Vietnam veteran, kept pestering her every day in physical therapy to join him at optional recreation events.
"I finally gave in to shut him up," she says.
He took her to something called a Fun in the Sun Day at the beach. Gardner and other disabled vets were introduced to activities such as kayaking and water skiing. It was as if someone had flicked a switch from off to on inside her. "Once I got there, I saw all these things that all these disabled people could still do, so I thought, 'Maybe I could do that.' That's when I started trying again," she says.
It was a turning point, thanks to her friend. Later, she tried snowboarding, surfing and sled hockey. "He knew what I could do and saw it in me before I did," she says.
Today, Gardner, 33, lives independently in Lewiston, Maine, with her assistance dog and best friend Moxie, a 7½-year-old golden retriever. When Moxie senses an oncoming seizure, she gently grabs Gardner's wrist and pulls her toward the ground, putting her paws on her until the seizure is over.
Gardner's life is full and active again. She walks with a prosthetic on one leg and a brace on the other. She regained her driver's license two years ago when the seizures became less frequent. She works on a farm near her home in Maine (which raises Labrador retrievers as service and hunting dogs) and recently received a degree in recreation therapy from the University of Southern Maine. She now teaches adaptive sports to other military veterans.
And, for the past four years, she has played on the U.S. women's sled hockey team, flying to games in Europe and Canada and traveling across the country with her teammates, always accompanied by Moxie.
Though she grew up in Maine and New York, she never played hockey until she tried it at one of those activity days for disabled veterans. She spent 20 minutes on the ice, mostly losing her balance and bashing her elbows. But she loved it.
"Before, my parents always thought I would get hurt, so they wouldn't let me play," she says, laughing. "So now that I'm really, really hurt, we figured, 'Why not?' "
Later, while attending a USA Hockey sled hockey camp, she was noticed by U.S. national sled hockey coach Shawna Davidson, who invited her into the program. She wasn't all that skilled at first, but had a will and drive to improve. By 2013, she was selected as USA Hockey's Disabled Athlete of the Year. She's now the No. 2 center and a wing on the power play.
"She has this drive in her that is unstoppable," says Kelly Lavoie, a veteran defenseman on the national team. "If she sets her mind to something, she's going to do it."
It's those qualities that impress Lavoie far more than Gardner's contributions on the ice -- and those are significant. "It's incredible for me to watch how far she's come from when she first started playing hockey with us, when she was still having seizures from her brain injury to now," Lavoie says. "It blows my mind."
Gardner was a part of the U.S. team that beat Canada in November of 2014 in the inaugural Sled Hockey International Women's Cup in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, an event billed as the first women's world championship event. She's now in the midst of her 2015-16 season with the U.S. national team. Their schedule is filled with games against the Canadian national team and men's and women's teams from across the U.S.
In her time with the U.S. team, Gardner has played a number of roles. Davidson has used her as a backup goaltender, starting forward and would play her on defense if needed.
"She's improved now to become an impact player for us," Davidson says.
Gardner's younger sister, Mariah Carrier -- who has watched her sister play many times -- laughs when asked to describe Christy's style of play. "Definitely very competitive," she says. "I would say she's a good sport, but she tends to be the one who gets the first penalty in a game. ... She gets really into it."
Gardner also plays for the USA Warriors mostly all-men's sled hockey team in the Northeast Sled Hockey League, sometimes against her good friend, Lavoie, who says, "She's determined as heck to come and beat me and drive me into the boards as quick as she can. That's how she lives her life. That's just her determination."
In high school, Gardner played soccer and field hockey in the fall, basketball and indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track and club soccer in the spring. She went to Long Island University on a track and field hockey scholarship, but soon dropped track for lacrosse because she was one of just two female throwers and didn't feel a sense of team.
After college, in fact, that's part of what sparked Gardner to enlist in the Army. She signed up in delayed-entry in October of 2004 and left for active duty the week after college graduation in May of 2005.
"I thought it would be a great and honorable career," Gardner says. "There was a lot that appealed to me. It was active, a good mission, trying to do something honorable."
She became a military policeman and loved the camaraderie. "It was just like being part of a team," she says.
She saw time in Missouri, Texas and South Korea until July of 2006, when she suffered her injuries. She was sent to Texas for six months of care and rehab, then transferred into the VA system for another three-and-a-half years of care. Eventually, she received a medical retirement.
"She's a very selfless individual, and I think a lot of that comes from her serving and her military background," Davidson says. "It's great to have that personality and that character in the locker room."
Gardner plans to be part of the U.S. national team in 2018, when she hopes that women's sled hockey will be a Paralympic demonstration sport. She's also hoping to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics in 2016 in the shot put, discus or javelin. But her biggest achievement may come in helping young people the way she was helped by her introduction to adaptive sports.
"I would love for people to remember me as a hockey player, but I don't think that will happen," she says. "I think they're going to remember more the differences I made in (others') lives. ... There's a lot to bringing up the next group, making sure those kids are ready and happy and have all the tools they need to succeed."