'I'm back to my life,' says Invictus competitor Christy Wise

Christy Wise takes part in the indoor rowing four-minute endurance final at the Invictus Games. The U.S. Air Force pilot, who lost a leg in a boating accident, entered 13 events in this week's competition in Toronto. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Christy Wise had just returned to her home near Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, after an eight-month stay at San Antonio's Center for the Intrepid, one of the country's leading rehabilitation facilities for amputees. The U.S. Air Force rescue squadron pilot, who'd lost her right leg in a boating accident, hadn't even unpacked her bags when her cellphone rang.

It was a foster care representative inquiring if she could look after a 17-year-old boy. For a week.

Wise didn't hesitate before answering: "Absolutely."

They spent the next seven days playing basketball, going to the movies and hanging out in the evenings after school. While taking care of a teenager in need so soon after having endured a severe injury and nearly a year of physical therapy might seem daunting, it felt natural for Wise.

"That week was amazing," says Wise, who has housed close to 30 children over the years as a short-term foster care provider. "My boyfriend at the time was deployed, all my friends were deployed, and I couldn't fly yet. It would've been a real shock to be back home and have nothing be the same. Instead, because I had [the boy], it was all about him."

That spirit of generosity, determination and adventure is what drives the 31-year-old former collegiate athlete in all endeavors, including as she competes in 13 events at the Invictus Games in Toronto this week as an Ottobock athlete and U.S. team co-captain. Through Wednesday's action, she'd earned five bronze medals, three in track and two in cycling.

"Christy's athleticism is different from most, in that her success and abilities come from her mental capacity to push through whatever she's attacking," close friend and former Air Force maintenance officer Jimmy Matthews says. "She really is always optimistic and she never considers quitting, understanding that giving her best is all that can be done."

Perhaps the biggest test to Wise's willpower came on April 11, 2015. While vacationing in Destin, Florida, with her then-boyfriend, fellow Air Force rescue pilot Tim Wiser, the duo decided to embark on an evening paddleboard ride. They pushed toward a protected cove, life jackets and flashlights in hand, before finding a spot to lie on their boards and gaze at the star-filled sky.

Suddenly, Wise heard a boat accelerating toward them. She took off her headlamp and waved it at the boat, expecting the driver to maneuver around her. Instead, he headed straight toward her, traveling at an estimated 20 mph.

Wise jumped off her board to the left just as the front of the boat sped over, hitting her shoulder. "The first miracle is that I oriented myself, pushed off the bottom of the boat and swam downward," Wise said, citing the first of several details she called the "miracle list" of her survival. "That definitely saved my life, because otherwise my whole body would've gone through the propeller."

Instead, the propeller ripped through Wise's right knee, severing a major artery. She surfaced, not realizing she'd been hurt. Only when Wiser grabbed her and used his long-sleeved T-shirt as a tourniquet did Wise see that she was bleeding profusely as her right leg dangled, attached to her body at her hamstring. (The boat that hit Wise didn't stop, and the driver, presumed by investigators to have been drunk, was never found.)

A nearby fishing boat, whose crew had seen the accident, sped over and assisted until an emergency medical team arrived. Wise was then driven 45 minutes away by ambulance to Pensacola's trauma center.

Wise's twin sister, Jessica, was at a dinner party in Las Vegas with fellow medical school classmates when her cellphone kept ringing, the screen showing an unfamiliar number. After several calls, Jessica finally answered. Wiser told Jessica there'd been an accident -- Christy was hurt badly and she should get on a plane as soon as possible.

Thanks to the around-the-clock flight availability out of Las Vegas, Jessica arrived to the hospital a few hours later, just as her sister's initial surgery had finished. "We were just happy at that point that she had survived," Jessica says. "That helped the initial shock of her losing her leg."

Despite the severity of her accident, Wise focused immediately on getting back into the pilot's seat. When Lt. Col. Sean Hosey, her squadron commander, visited her the next day, she asked him to ship her study materials.

"We spend a lot of time studying aircraft systems and operations and she didn't want to miss a beat," Hosey says. "Within days, she was doing pullups with the bar above her seat in her hospital bed."

She also received calls from fellow amputees in the Air Force. "Two or three days after my accident, I receive this message: 'Hey Christy, this is John, I'm the first amputee pilot, and when you're ready, call me. It's possible you can get back to duty,'" Wise says. "That was cool because I never had to despair. It really gave me hope."

After several weeks at the Pensacola hospital, Wise was transferred to the Center for the Intrepid. There, she met fellow amputee Matt Melancon, whose words Wise has used as daily motivation ever since: Don't for one second long for what you were, but recklessly pursue what you can become.

What Wise would become, after almost a year of grueling rehabilitation, was the first female to be cleared to return to duty as a cockpit pilot for the U.S. Air Force following an above-knee amputation.

The recovery wasn't easy. Initially, Wise couldn't sleep, and she took numerous pain medications. Her whole life had come to an abrupt halt, leading to frustration.

"The hardest part was suddenly going from being this busy pilot, doing fun sports on the weekend, skydiving, wakeboarding, etc., to being in rehab, and I have nothing to do eight hours a day," she says.

As soon as she was cleared to do so, Wise filled those days with workouts. She was powering through sets of pullups in the San Antonio physical therapy center less than two months after her accident when the coach of the Air Force adaptive athlete teams -- also an amputee -- saw her and asked if she wanted to compete in the Warrior Games in Virginia.

"Honestly, that was the best thing that could've ever happened to me," Wise says. "It was so awesome. I show up at the games and I don't have a prosthetic leg yet, so I can't even run, but here are 400 other amputee athletes. This guy over here lost two legs and look at how fast he's running."

Wise competed in wheelchair racing, swimming, track and field and hand cycling, earning 11 medals. She was hooked.

"As awesome as the events are, the best thing is meeting the other athletes," says Wise, who made her Invictus Games debut in 2016. "A British special forces officer who lost his leg in Iraq, he has the Ottobock X3, the same leg as me. We were walking to cycling and talking about blisters and how we train. It's so cool that there are these people from all over the world -- we all have such different stories, but when it comes to sports, we're all the same."

As she learned to walk and then run with her prosthetics (she utilizes five different prosthetic legs), Wise thought about the support network she had and about those who suffered similar injuries but weren't as fortunate. In July 2015, she and Jessica founded the One Leg Up On Life Foundation, which provides prosthetic limbs to children living in poverty in third-world countries. The sisters have traveled to Haiti several times, distributing prostheses and training recipients on how to use them.

After passing the required written and physical tests, including running 1.5 miles in under 14 minutes, Wise returned to active duty in May of 2016 and piloted a flight several months afterward.

Currently stationed in Tucson, Arizona, Wise said she has to walk three-quarters of a mile, sometimes in 110-degree heat, to get from the main building to the airplanes, carrying her backpack and all her gear for the flight. "At the end of a day that I've flown, I'm exhausted," she says. "My prosthetic is sore, my good leg is sore because I'll overuse it, and just mentally it's more draining. Every part of the flight, I'm conscious of my leg, if anything is different. But on the other hand, I'm back to my life, doing almost everything that I did before."

That's a descriptor her friends use as well. "Before her accident, we were constantly riding dirt bikes, scuba diving and skydiving," Matthews says. "Since her accident, nothing has really changed. In fact, she's picked up a few new sports. We most recently all did our first triathlon together. This inspires me, because it's a reminder that nothing that happens to us is an excuse to stop living life."

A life that for Wise includes not only a love for competitive sports (a trait that runs in the family -- her brother, David, won a freestyle skiing gold medal in the halfpipe at the 2014 Olympics), but also fostering children.

Sochi gold medal freeskier David Wise isn't the only star in the family: His sister, Christy, who lost her leg in 2015 and is a pilot in the Air Force, is competing at the Invictus Games -- an Paralympic-style event for wounded warriors -- while he's at the Team USA Media Summit in Utah. How is he supporting her from afar? "I'm checking in all of the time, asking how she's feeling," says the father of two. "I just say I'm here to support you in whatever way you want."

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She's currently going through the Arizona application process and hopes to return to fostering soon.

"I had a little girl who was 10, and I let her use my phone to call her biological mom," Wise says, recalling one of her Georgia foster children. "I'm eavesdropping and she's like, 'Mom, Miss Christy has a fake leg, but don't worry I still like her.'" Wise laughed, pausing before she continued.

"I may be tired from life or my prosthetic may be hurting -- it's so easy to get caught up in your own frustration -- but the second I have one of these kids, it takes all that away."