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Military Veteran Christy Gardner a Portrait of Perseverance and Courage

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As the sport of women’s ice sledge hockey continues to grow, the most intriguing element is the discovery of a remarkable group of empowering and inspirational competitors who add a powerful dimension to the sport. Such an individual that has captured the hearts and minds of fans is Christy Gardner.

Currently based in the state of Maine, Gardner’s story is one that tugs at the heartstrings while proving that great things can result through perseverance and dedication. Competing for head coach Shawna Davidson, Gardner contributed to the United States capturing the gold medal at the inaugural IPC Ice Sledge Hockey International Women’s Cup.

In the opening game of the event, Gardner would earn a first period assist on a goal scored by Kelsey DiClaudio, providing the US with a 3-0 advantage against Canada. During Game 6, Gardner assisted on the first goal of the game. Scored by Susan Kluting, the US would eventually win by a 6-1 mark.

Gardner’s finest performance would come in the gold medal game. With two assists in the opening frame (goals scored by DiClaudio and team captain Erica Mitchell), Gardner contributed to a 4-0 lead which the US would not relinquish. The chance to make hockey history was complemented by a team photograph that shall be displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“It was absolutely amazing! To be a part of the inaugural championship and to represent my country is awesome. Yet, to be able to bring home the gold too, was a fantastic feeling.”

Prior to sledge hockey, Gardner had represented her country in a much different way. As a member of the United States Army, Gardner was intrigued by the adventure that the military promised. While her initial ambitions were to serve as a combat photographer, women were not allowed to serve in combat roles. Gardner followed the alternate route of military police service.

Serving as a member of the Army’s Military Police, she suffered an injury to her brain and spinal cord in 2006 while serving in South Korea. In addition to briefly having no feeling in her legs, Gardner had lost most of her speech and memory. To this day, she suffers from deafness in one ear.

A significant part of her recovery involved overcoming the problems of walking and talking, things that most people take for granted. This was compounded by the fact that she could not remember moments from her childhood or the people that she called friends in high school and college.

Treatment in Texas resulted in another difficult reality for the courageous Gardner. As grand mal seizures could come at any time, the lack of warning resulted in a situation where she fell face first into a staircase. The result was a fractured cheek bone in two spots along with injuries to her jaw and skull.

Coping with the occasional bout of grand mal seizures, her service dog Moxie, able to detect the onset of a seizure is faithfully at her side. Considering that at one time in her recovery, it was believed that Gardner could not live alone, or conduct daily tasks such as bathing, Moxie has enabled Gardner to live with independence.

Introduced to Gardner when she was just nine weeks old, Moxie was trained at Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna Service Dogs. Currently three years old, Moxie became an essential part of Gardner’s life at the recommendation of a doctor.

At the sign of a seizure, Moxie bumps her leg. Should that not be effective, Moxie can take Gardner’s wrist and place her on the floor, where her paws can keep her down in order to minimize getting hurt until it has passed. Even more important is the fact that Moxie is able to bring her the phone or alert next door neighbors. Moxie provides invaluable assistance while helping to bring a highly valued sense of dignity to Gardner’s life.

Testament to Gardner’s remarkable perseverance and toughness is the fact that she has endured 19 surgeries so far. After doctors advised her that she would never be able to play sports again, rehabilitation and a will to excel would serve as the cornerstone for the athletic glories to follow.

From wheelchair lacrosse to surfing, sport has helped integrate Gardner back into society. In addition to her status as a world champion in ice sledge hockey, Gardner also works as a coach at the high school level in Maine. In addition to her work as a lacrosse coach, she is also an assistant girl’s soccer coach while juggling courses at the University of Southern Maine.

Another key factor in Gardner being able to rebuild her life can be attributed to the DAV Charitable Service Trust. Initiatives include the likes of the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and the USA Warriors. Of note, the USA Warriors also provides an ice sledge hockey team for injured military veterans. Despite residing in Maine, Gardner, the only female member on the roster, proudly trains and plays with the Maryland-based team.

Regarded as a rehabilitation tool, it has provided Gardner with many life-changing experiences. Taking into account that all the competitors share the common background of recovering from injury, the chance to feel as part of a team again provides an emotional well-spring. Prior to her gold medal victory at the 2014 IPC Sledge Hockey championships, a notable event occurred with the USA Warriors in November 2012.

Sponsored by the NHL’s Washington Capitals, Gardner and the USA Warriors took part in the third annual USA Hockey Sled Classic in Buffalo, New York. Presented by the National Hockey League, the Warriors sported an undefeated mark. Prevailing in all five of their contests, the Warriors outscored their opponents by a cumulative 36-3 mark, en route to capturing the B division crown. Having recorded one goal, the event represented Gardner’s first tourney with the Warriors.

“I love playing with the USA Warriors because there is something special about being with all the military guys. There is a special bond and common understanding between all of us who have served and sacrificed. There are so many things that we just do not have to explain. Or things that go unsaid because all of the guys already know the answer. I may be the only girl on the A Team, but I get to be “one of the guys”, and feel like a part of a unit again.”

Honored by USA Hockey as the 2013 recipient of its Disabled Athlete of the Year Award, it was recognition of the inspiration that she brought on and off the ice. Able to overcome so much adversity and provide remarkable inspiration, the award was truly a fitting tribute for Gardner, who became only the second female to win the award, following Erica Mitchell.

“That was a great honor. I felt like I was still a rookie and not really deserving the award, but my coaches and managers had faith in me, on and off the ice. My mom actually got to accompany me to the ceremony in Colorado. That was a really big deal since I think it was the first time she realized my life was not over from the disability. It was nice to show her I can still be powerful.”

In many ways, her story is similar in inspiration to another New England based women’s hockey player. Massachusetts native Meghan Duggan suffered through a concussion that sidelined her for over a year, making things as simple as watching television almost impossible. Her comeback resulted in being named the captain of the United States women’s team that competed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.

Ironically, the Greater Toronto Area providing Gardner and Duggan with a pair of great hockey stories. Of note, the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey International Women’s Cup took place in Brampton, Ontario during November 2014. Duggan would compete in the inaugural CWHL All-Star Game in December 2014, contested at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.

In the aftermath of such great performances, Gardner has the chance to emulate Duggan and don the USA jersey on a stage like no other. With the announcement that women’s ice sledge hockey shall be a demonstration sport at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, it is an event that provides Gardner with focus and motivation.

As the event shall take place in Pyeongchange, South Korea, it would bring her miraculous recovery full circle. Competing in the sport that brought many positives to her life, it would be a fitting tribute to Gardner’s perseverance, in which she has established herself as a strong woman, a cherished teammate and a genuine hero.

“It would be absolutely be a dream come true to represent my country on the world’s biggest stage. To be a part of such an amazing part of history would be the highlight of my career.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Photo credit: Robert F. Bukaty

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