A Warrior's Way: The fighting spirit of Christy Gardner

SC Featured: Wounded veteran saved by special dog (6:20)

Watch how a golden retriever named Moxie helped disabled Army veteran Christy Gardner find new meaning in life. (6:20)

Christy Gardner was excited and nervous -- but also a little afraid of doing a face-plant. She'd never run a 100-meter race, and she'd certainly never done it as a double amputee.

Yet there she was, at the Army's trials for the Warrior Games in April, crouched at the starting line of the 100 meters, ready to sprint down the track just a little more than a year since her second leg amputation.

"I was totally nervous the whole time that I was going to trip and become Superman for a minute," she recalls, laughing. "I guess I still always underestimate myself."

By this point, she's probably the only one.

Gardner, 35, didn't do a face-plant at those trials in any way. She entered nine individual events (in track and field and swimming) and one team event (sitting volleyball), and came away with nine gold medals and an invitation to the Department of Defense Warrior Games (June 30-July 8) in Chicago.

During the nine-day competition, she'll compete in sitting volleyball, swim (50- and 100-meter free, 50 breast and 50 back) and track and field, where she'll throw the discus and put the shot, plus do the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints on brand-new running blades.

"At this point I'm kind of thankful I didn't try out for shooting, archery and cycling, too," she says. "Those are my only days of rest."

That Gardner is competing at all in the Warrior Games is a tribute to her resiliency and what she calls a stubborn personality. Two years ago at this time, she couldn't run. She could walk but with difficulty. After suffering multiple major injuries while serving with the Army overseas in the military police in 2006, Gardner lost one leg to amputation below the knee. Doctors saved the other leg, but she had no feeling in it because of spinal damage. She walked with one prosthetic while her other leg was in a brace.

Despite her injuries and condition -- which included two skull fractures, spinal damage, brain trauma, a loss of hearing in one ear, two missing fingers on one hand and frequent seizures -- Gardner fought through depression to build a life in Lewiston, Maine.

Then she discovered sled hockey and became a standout player for the U.S. women's sled hockey team. Her assistance dog, a golden retriever named Moxie, became her best friend and helped her through the seizures, which began to subside. She regained her driver's license, graduated with a degree in recreation therapy from the University of Southern Maine and now teaches adaptive sports to military veterans. She also works on a farm that raises Labrador retrievers as service and hunting dogs.

"It's seriously the best job," she says. "I get paid to play with puppies all day."

But until February 2016, Gardner's leg prevented her from more activity. Because doctors didn't want her to damage the leg and foot, they encouraged her to spend most of her time in a wheelchair.

Eventually, though, a consensus was reached: Amputation would be her best option for living a full life. So in February, the leg was taken below the knee. By April, she was walking on new prosthetics and discovering that new doors were opening for her. She could hike. By November she could run. Last year, she ran her first 5K. This year, she has done three. This winter she learned to snowboard.

And she got a call from USA Track and Field last year asking her to consider throwing for the national program -- something she hadn't done since college, when she went to Long Island University on a combined track and field/field hockey scholarship.

Gardner did well at the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Trials for Rio de Janeiro, winning the shot and discus in her classification. She also won the discus at this year's U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Championships at UCLA.

Today, Gardner feels like anything is possible. Hockey remains her No. 1 love, and she still hopes to someday compete for the U.S. women's sled team in a Paralympics, but now believes she might also be a summer Paralympian, probably as a thrower.

"That would be unreal to be able to be a dual-sport athlete that way," she says.

Her roommate at the Warrior Games, Rachel Salemink of Fort Wayne, Indiana, a staff sergeant in the Army Reserve, was with her at the Army trials and came away impressed by her drive and spirit. She saw opponents cheer Gardner, just as Gardner cheered for them.

"It's just incredible all the adversity she has come through," says Salemink. "She has an awesome level of sportsmanship and competitiveness. It's pretty incredible."

For the first time since those initial dark days after her injuries 11 years ago, Gardner knows she can dream of a new challenge -- she'd love to try cycling (not on her hand cycle, but an upright bike) or bounce on a trampoline -- and make it happen.

She has always remembered the doctors who told her she'd probably never be able to live on her own, or walk or run. She loves to prove them wrong.

"My doctors said, 'Well, hopefully, you'll be more active after the surgery, but not everybody can run and your legs may never get to that point,'" she recalled being told after her most recent amputation. "So for it to actually happen and to happen so quickly, it's been pretty cool and pretty amazing.

"The legs and components they have nowadays, I mean, I have to switch parts for every activity I want to do, but the possibilities are endless. Like, they make a part for that."