HALLOWELL — In 2006, Christy Gardner’s mind and body were broken while serving as a military police officer with the Army in Korea.

Her competitive spirit persevered despite her injuries, and the former collegiate field hockey and lacrosse player spent the better part of her adult life proving doubters wrong.

“I’m so stubborn and so thickheaded that when you tell me I can’t do it that makes me want to do it more,” Gardner said. “I’m one of those people that when you say, ‘you’ll never run again,’ well I’m going to sure as hell try.”

Now, Gardner is helping other veterans do the same. During her recovery she was turned on to the sport of sled hockey — essentially the same as the traditional version of the sport only played in a sled with shorter sticks with sharp picks at the opposite ends of the blades to propel oneself along — and Gardner has in turn brought the sport to the area.

Training every other Thursday morning at the Bank of Maine Ice Vault and when ice time is available at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston, Gardner — along with representatives from the Togus Veterans Affairs Medical Hospital in Augusta — has helped form a sled hockey team to aid veterans in their recovery.

“We’re mostly trying to kind of give vets another lease on life,” Gardner said. “I actually got hurt pretty bad in 2006 and there were all these things I would never do again, never do with my life — whatever. I got into a rehab program through the VA playing sled hockey and with that it was like holy crap, this is something that I can still do, be a part of a team, be competitive and really challenge myself.

“When the opportunity came up here where the (Ice Vault) was going to donate ice time for our group, we actually sort of envisioned it as public skating for veterans — like a free time where they could go out and skate without 10,000 teenagers whizzing by them.”

According to Gardner — who cannot skate standing up — once she brought out her sled at the first session, the other vets were intrigued much like she was when first introduced to the sport.

ONCE AN ATHLETE, ALWAYS AN ATHLETE

Gardner was a three-sport athlete at Edward Little High School in Auburn, where she graduated in 2000, and went on to attend Long Island University (C.W. Post Campus) on field hockey and lacrosse scholarships.

After a successful career as a goalie with the Pioneers, Gardner joined the Army, where she would leave forever changed after medically retiring in December 2007.

“After I got hurt, I met with the polytrauma team, which (means) that multiple body systems are injured — so like neurological, orthopedic, internal — and they just went through this three-page list of stuff which they said I would never be able to do again,” Gardner said. “Honestly, going from being a scholarship athlete to being labeled 100 percent disabled and severely handicapped — that whole severely handicapped thing was like, wow — it was just absolutely devastating.”

Since that time, however, Gardner has made it a point to cross items off that three-page list. At the time it was thought she would never be capable of living alone, yet eight years later she — along with the help of her service dog Moxie — has certainly proven the initial prognosis wrong.

“I live alone, I own my own house, I can bathe alone and take care of all my daily living activities — ADLs they call them. I’m fully independent,” Gardner said. “I’ve done three and half years of speech therapy so that’s fairly squared away, unless I’m too tired than you can tell I have a speech impediment from the brain injury.”

During the course of her treatment with the VA she was introduced to sled hockey at a one-day demonstration at the New England winter sports clinic. The challenge of the sport appealed to her competitive nature and it was not long before she was hooked.

“I really, really liked the sport and I thought it was a great game,” Gardner said. “They actually loaned me equipment and for the first six or seven months I trained on my own in Lewiston. The rink donated me ice time so I could skate every week.”

Since then Gardner has risen to the top of her sport. In November she played on the gold-medal winning US Women’s Sledge Hockey team that defeated Canada at the International Paralympic Committee Women’s World Cup in Brampton, Ontario. It was just one of many amazing accomplishments Christy Gardner was never supposed to be able to do in her life.

“I’ve learned sled hockey, water skiing, snowboarding, surfing — all this stuff I never even did before I got hurt,” she said. “All kinds of more extreme stuff that they showed me that I can still do.”

INSPIRING OTHERS

Over the past few months other area veterans have discovered, like Gardner, that there is still plenty they can do as well through sled hockey.

Ten years ago Army veteran Rich Grey — who is originally from Bangor but now lives in Augusta — was walking down a street during a tour of duty in Iraq when he was critically injured.

“I’m just a regular soldier and I got caught in an explosion and my back was broken severely. I had a lot of other injuries — a lot of other injuries,” Grey, 45, said. “Eventually a guy down in Falmouth, Dr. Philip Anson, he repaired my back and it allowed me to have some mobility again with my legs and help me gain my life back. That was a huge blessing. It really has been a road of recovery since. They’ve operated on me maybe 20 or 30 times.”

Part of that road led Grey to meet Daniel Oliver, a recreational therapist with VA who saw how an activity like sled hockey could make a real impact with the veterans he works with.

“With recreation therapy it’s never about the activity, it’s about why they’re doing the activity,” Oliver said. “The reasons why some of these guys are here can be to get back out, to socialize with other vets, exercise, work on their anxiety, work on their (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), become part of a team again. When they become part of a team with each other that translates into their own personal lives.”

Grey said he was a bit skeptical at first and that it took a little convincing for him to try the sport, but is glad he took the chance.

“When I get out on the ice and get flying I kind of feel like I’m free again. It’s kind of like running for me,” Grey said. “It gives me a sense of normalcy to a degree, and I’m able to work out and I’m with my buddies.

“Even though I didn’t serve with any of these guys, there’s an instant camaraderie. We help each other out. You don’t even have to ask, we just pitch in.”

THE NEW ENGLAND WARRIORS

Under the tutelage of Gardner — with help from Oliver and Cam Forys of the University of New Hampshire’s Northeast Passage — the program is growing, both in skill and stature.

After four more additions in just the last week the team is up to 12 members, with the hope of ultimately settling between 18 and 20 players on the final team. The goal, Gardner said, will be to build a team to compete in the Northeast Sled Hockey League — where Gardner already plays — that represents not only Maine, but all of New England.

“Right now we’re essentially the Maine team but we’re hoping to become the New England Warriors and represent all of New England veterans,” Gardner said. “Obviously I’d like to have a couple (games) a month before we really face the tough opponents, get my guys going but the ones that are dedicated come to practice once or twice a week.

“They’re picking it up faster than I did. They’re all at the level I was after the first year and they’re only like two or three months in.”

Gardner also said that those wishing to join them are more than welcome though, as they have ice time at the Ice Vault every other Thursday from 9 to 11 a.m.

“It’s open to any vet that’s enrolled in the VA system. The more, the merrier,” she said. “We’d love to have everyone come out and at least give it a try even if they’re not sure if it’s for them.

“We do also have it open for stand up skating and stuff like that, so if you’ve got a vet that just wants to come skate around they’re welcome to join us.”

Evan Crawley — 621-5640

[email protected]

Twitter: @Evan_Crawley


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