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Christy Gardner | US national women’s sledge hockey

Embodying the personification of courage, perseverance and dedication, Christy Gardner, an alternate captain with the US national women’s ice sledge hockey team, continues to find new ways to inspire. With service dog Moxie at her side, she has become a multi-sport superstar, the arena of sport exemplifying her courageous battle in overcoming obstacles, simultaneously embodying the revered resiliency of both, disabled military veterans and athletes.

With the women of ice sledge hockey competing at the 2018 Women’s International Para Ice Hockey Cup, only the second in tournament history, it served as another key step forward for the game and its expanding relevance. As over 10 teams took to the ice in Ostrava, Czech Republic, the star power from the United States emerged with the gold medal. Such a monumental team benefitted from Gardner’s presence, emerging as a role model for many of the program’s rookie sensations.

Maintaining their status as the world’s finest, a hotly contested 1-0 victory over their Canadian rivals, an extension of continued dominance, added another proud milestone to Gardner’s rich athletic narrative, while completing a unique double for the women of American hockey. Of note, the US national women’s ice hockey team captured the gold medal at the 2018 Winter Games, while their ice sledge hockey sisters continued the golden theme.

Robynne Hill and Christy Gardner celebrate Gold at the 2nd Women’s International Para Ice Hockey Cup 2018 (Image from The Christy Gardner Collection)

Having first mounted the sled nearly a decade ago, the gold medal represented the second such honor for Gardner, who was also part of the victorious US roster that reigned supreme at the inaugural Cup in 2014. Understandably, the eventual dream for all female sled players is to one day participate at the Paralympic Winter Games. Certainly, wondrous women like Gardner are helping to shape that dream into one with realistic expectations, supplying an important cultural cachet.

Notably, there was another ice sledge hockey event in 2018 that supplied a strong emotional connection. With the US men’s ice sledge hockey team capturing the gold at the Paralympic Winter Games (the female game is not yet a demonstrative or medal sport), several members of the roster possessed a background consisting of past military service, having also called Gardner, a former U.S. Army Sergeant in the Military Police Corps, serving with the 82nd MP Battalion out of Ft. Hood, a teammate on the Wounded Warriors club team.

The golden outcome was one that certainly rekindled fond memories for Gardner. Heading into New Year’s Day 2015, Gardner and the Warriors took to the frozen surface outdoors at Washington Nationals’ Stadium on December 31, 2014. Site of the Winter Classic between the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks, the New Year’s Eve scrimmage also coincided with the event’s Media Day, allowing a well-deserved opportunity for the heroes of ice sledge hockey to shine in the spotlight.

Undoubtedly, the lasting legacy of the event was an important tribute to the brave heroes of the military that have found new purpose, employing dignity and a heroic spirit, channelling their energies into ice sledge hockey. The sensation of being given the privilege of gracing the ice for an ice sledge hockey exhibition at such a venue represented a sense of both pride and achievement for Gardner,

Christy Gardner with Moxie on the sled at Nationals Park (Image from The John Laursen Collection)

“Playing sled hockey outdoors at Nationals Stadium during the NHL Winter Classic was amazing. The atmosphere was crazy and it was so fun to be sort of in the spot light like that with all of those famous people.”

Worth noting, Gardner also enjoyed the rare opportunity to play against her club team. In 2016, she suited up with the US national women’s team, engaged in a unique exhibition versus the Warriors. Reflecting on a landmark event with a self-effacing humor, it simultaneously marked a treasured highlight for the gregarious Gardner.

“The U.S. Women’s National Team played the USA Warriors at Cabin John arena. It is always great when you are on the ice but it was fun to (be able to) play against my other teammates too. It was a little awkward and there was no head hunting since I was sort of a traitor by playing for the other side. Regardless, it was a great weekend.”

Running parallel to Gardner’s ice sledge hockey journey, the time also represented personal and athletic crossroads for Gardner. Just three years ago, Gardner attempted to gain a spot on the American entry at the 2016 Paralympic Summer Games in Rio.

Classified as an F57 athlete, which recognizes people who compete in field events from a seated position, specifically wheelchair athletes suffering from effects such as polio, spinal cord injuries and/or amputations, she had aspirations to participate against the world’s finest in both the shot put and discus. Having emerged among the top finishers in her respective events at the 2016 Desert Challenge, it was an indicator of her standing as a multi-sport talent,

“The Desert Challenge was great! It was my first international track meet so it was awesome to do so well. I did not throw as far as I would have liked to in discus but I still placed second. I also took second in shot put and only just barely got beat by the Canadian on her final throw so that made me pretty hopeful for the Paralympic Trials.

Javelin has always been my favorite event though. At first they scratched me from Javelin to save time by limiting the number of competitors in the event but I requested to be added back and since I was the only one who asked they allowed me back into the event. I threw farther than I expected and easily took first place. They said I set a record too but I was waiting to hear back from the International Paralympic Committee as to what record it was (America vs World).”

Having also won the discus at the 2017 U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Championships, which were held at UCLA, Gardner continued to evade her comfort zone during the calendar year, pushing herself as both, world-class athlete and person.

Among the numerous events that she participated in at the Army’s 2017 trials for the Department of Defense Warrior Games, hosted by the United States Navy in Chicago (marking the first time that the event was not contested at a military base or U.S. Olympic facility), gaining a total of nine medals, she impressed in the 100-meter dash, soaring down the track with a pair of prosthetic limbs.

Gardner jubilant at the 2017 Warrior Games IV (Image from The Norma Lynn Heidrich Crowell Collection)

Gathering a significant medal haul at the fourth Warrior Games, a sporting event created where post-9/11 wounded warriors from all branches of the US military service were eligible to qualify, the event was also the catalyst for Prince Harry’s vision of the Invictus Games, an international version.

Gardner finished first in her division in the 100-, 200-, 400- and 800-meter races, such achievements made even more superlative by the fact that she also competed in a total of 11 events, which included sitting volleyball and swimming. Finishing the Games with 11 medals, Gardner became a media darling, interviewed by ESPN, while the July/August 2017 of Woman’s Day magazine saw Beth Dreher interview her for a feature titled “My Alive Day”.

Gardner featured in the July/August 2017 issue of Woman’s Day (Image obtained from Facebook)

Making the brave yet visceral decision in 2015 to undergo a double amputation, due to the fact that she struggled chronically with no feeling below her knees, an astounding show of support via a Go Fund Me page (which helped to finance the procedure), displayed the essence of both compassion and teamwork.

Serving as a means of coping with the chronic pain suffered since an unfortunate accident suffered in 2006 as a member of the US Armed Forces, while on service in Asia, fracturing her skull in two places, along with injuries to her cheeks, jaw and nose, along with the dreadful suffering of a seizure.

Suffering more than any person should ever have to, Gardner’s ability to rebound from damage to both speech and memory, eventually walking successfully with prosthetics speaks volumes to her valor, character and persistence. Six months after the adjustment to prosthetics, Gardner began running. Aspiring to run a marathon, she has already participated in numerous long-distance running events, cultivating the confidence needed.

While Gardner shines as one of the ambassadors and luminaries of ice sledge hockey, attaining an iconic status for women in sport, the combination of her military heroics and athletic prodigy also intersected in a unique environment, propelling her into popular culture. Having been featured on billboards throughout the nation for Disabled American Veterans (DAV.org), raising a relevant consciousness about Victories for Veterans, such an admirable campaign foreshadowed a heartwarming appearance on The Rachael Ray Show.

With the effervescent Ray dedicating an episode in honor of Veterans Day, Gardner was the recipient of a makeover with celebrity stylist Kyan Douglas. Prior to her appearance on the popular daytime show, Gardner, who arrived in New York, where the show is filmed, just completed a track competition across the Atlantic in Italy. Sponsored by Suave, who works with a foundation called Fisher House Foundation, supporting housing for military and veterans’ families, she was nominated for the makeover by her proud mother, Norma.

The results were absolutely stunning, leaving Norma in a stream of jubilant tears. Garbed in a burgundy dress, while her hair, traditionally pulled back, was styled in a textured bob, while she donned a pair of casual yet stylish sandals, receiving a round of applause from the audience, composed primarily of members of the US military. As a side note, Gardner has an assortment of prosthetic legs for various functions, including for athletics (she dabbles in hiking, sprinting and surfing) and for everyday walking, although she is keen for one that consists of an adjustable ankle, allowing her to wear heels.

Gardner (far right) appearing on The Rachael Ray Show with her mother (Image obtained from: https://www.facebook.com/HangerNews/posts/what-a-special-veteransday-weekend-after-receiving-a-nomination-from-christys-mo/10156545780170731/)

Meanwhile, there is another key accessory that represents Gardner’s focus. With sights set on qualifying for the 2020 Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan, building on a body of work in track and field that began four years ago, the attainment of a podium finish, a medal either of gold, silver, or bronze, adorning her neck would mark a crowning achievement.

Regardless of the final outcome in Tokyo, the greater victory is one that sees Gardner as an exemplary individual whose enthusiasm and gallantry display a boldness that have elevated her to the celebrated status of hero. Whether it be for an exciting new generation of ice sledge hockey talent, or for those stricken with a disability, struggling to adjust to a new reality, the continued display of Gardner’s strength makes her more than one of this decade’s sporting idols, but an esteemed individual to emulate, providing a glimpse into what can be achieved once impediments are eradicated and replaced by reassurance and poise.

All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated

References:

www.aerotechnews.com/lukeafb/2017/05/17/paralympic-military-athletes-train-at-luke-for-desert-challenge-games/

https://www.dav.org/victories-for-veterans/

http://www.espn.com/endurance/story/_/id/19789089/fighting-spirit-christy-gardner

http://www.espn.com/sports/endurance/story/_/id/19770462/warrior-games-2017-schedule-news-features

https://www.newscentermaine.com/article/news/local/207/disabled-veteran-has-her-sights-set-on-2020-paralympics/97-568178787

https://www.paralympic.org/athletics/classification

https://www.paralympic.org/news/usa-wins-second-womens-para-ice-hockey-cup

https://www.rachaelrayshow.com/articles/makeover-for-inspiring-double-amputee-army-veteran-leaves-her-mom-absolutely-speechless

warriorgamesfamilyprogram.org/warrior-games-news-feature-christy-gardner-no-holding-back-this-warrior-athlete/

www.sunjournal.com/2018/11/08/christy-gardner-double-amputee-encourages-others-to-go-for-it/

www.womansday.com/life/inspirational-stories/a59386/christy-gardner-alive-day/


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