Originally published in Hawaii Sport Magazine, Jan.-Feb. 2014 issue
Jeremy Wagner is a devoted Hawaiian in many ways. From his greeting of “Aloha” to his trusty ukulele to his love of the University of Hawaii Rainbow Wahine sports teams, Wagner seems upon first impression to belong on the islands.
But somehow, this Nānākuli, Hawaii, native has found himself living in the mountains of Fraser, Colo. Though he didn’t see snow for the first time until late 2010, Wagner is now training for the Sochi Paralympic Winter Games in the sports of cross-country skiing and biathlon, which combines Nordic skiing and rifle shooting.
An Army Reserves veteran, Wagner was injured in 2007 in a motorcycle accident while on leave from his second tour in Iraq. The injury damaged his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed below the waist. Wagner began looking for opportunities to stay active almost immediately, finding his first passion for adaptive sport in an outrigger canoe.
While undergoing treatment at the Palo Alto Veterans’ Association Medical Center in California, Wagner found out about the VA’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games and was introduced to a SitSki for the first time. Using the sit-ski, Wagner found that he could glide and steer himself through the snow using just his upper body and a pair of short poles.
Wagner competed in the slalom event at the Wheelchair Games that year, and an unlikely passion was ignited.
It didn’t take long for Wagner to find his niche in the sports of cross-country skiing and biathlon. At the Wheelchair Games, he was approached by Rob Rosser, a U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing National Team coach in charge of development and recruiting, and was encouraged to try training and racing at a more competitive level. Wagner’s cousin invited him to live with her and her husband in Denver to give full-time training a try, and he jumped at the opportunity.
“I am very fortunate to have the support of my family, who initially opened it up,” Wagner said. “My cousin helped me get involved with the VA in the first place; otherwise, I don’t know where I’d be now.”
With his cousin’s support, Wagner began practicing with the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park, Colo., under Nordic head coach Mark Birdseye. There, he trained alongside the National Team and began to understand where his talent could lead him. Before long, he was hooked.
“After five months or so, I was able to go to the last training camp that the [National Team] has in Bend, Ore.,” Wagner said. “I was kind of able to keep up with the National guys, and then they put me on the Development Team … Progress is always motivating, and I was named to the National Team a year later. I thought, ‘Maybe I do have what it takes to make it to the Games.’”
In just his third year of training full-time, Wagner finds himself a member of the world championship team, a world cup circuit participant and a favorite for the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. He still trains with the NSCD, which recently received a grant through the Olympic Opportunity Fund to support disabled veterans and injured servicemen through the process of learning, training for and competing in adaptive sports at all levels.
For Wagner and many other military veterans, biathlon is an attractive sport because it makes use of many of the skills used in combat. Biathlon requires quick movement and endurance as well as strong marksmanship, something veterans do not often get a chance to experience again after returning from active duty. Biathlon offers such an experience; in fact, all five athletes who represented the United States at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Championships in Sweden were either military veterans or active duty servicemen.
Wagner, however, believes the sport draws veterans for bigger reasons than the chance to shoot a rifle again.
“I think it’s the drive,” Wagner said. “Although we train as a team, it’s an individual sport, and you have to have a lot of self-motivation to get out there and train by yourself. I think a lot of [the athletes] have that because of their service.”
Wagner said staying active and competing are especially important for him and many other Paralympic veteran athletes.
“A lot of them are coming back from combat with an injury or were injured after they got home,” Wagner said. “They still have that fighting mentality – they’re just fighting a different battle now. We’re not satisfied with sitting on a couch and feeling sorry for ourselves. So whether it’s our personal goals or reaching out to the community, we are always staying active.”
Though Wagner said he and his teammates push each other in training on a regular basis, his goals for Sochi are more personal: to race to the best of his ability and to continue to make progress in his sport.
“[My hope is] just to push myself and to do better and better,” Wagner said. “I know we’re there to get medals, but as long as I meet my personal goals, whether it’s a time or a place, I’m satisfied. If I keep meeting my goal, eventually I am confident that I will obtain those top spots.”
To reach those goals, Wagner is putting in the effort in the weeks leading up to the Sochi Games. An average week for the Nordic skier and biathlete includes two-a-day practices at least three times per week; those workouts consist of high-intensity interval training, which range from short, one-minute sprints to longer four-minute repeated efforts. Wagner also hits the weight room three days per week to build strength and endurance.
To learn how to move efficiently between the intensity of skiing and the composure needed for an accurate shot, Wagner said he uses a heart rate monitor and analyzes his results from training.
“If I had a 150, 160 or 165-bpm heart rate, how did I shoot?” Wagner will ask himself. “And shooting is the same as the cross-country side, there are slow days and hard days. Slow days are dry-firing and slow shooting, working on accuracy, and hard days are going out and working on race-pace heart rate so that we’re used to that condition.”
As he closes in on the Sochi Games, Wagner said his focus will shift even more from endurance and technique practice to speed and specific race preparation.
But for the unlikely snow-sport enthusiast and islander at heart, the move from beaches to mountains has not been easy. He misses being around the water and being surrounded by like-minded natives. Colorado has its share of positives, though, some of which make Wagner feel a little closer to home.
“Hawaii and Colorado both have an amazing amount of sunshine, so I’m good with being in Colorado,” Wagner said. “Even though the temperature is really different, as long as the sun is out, I am good.”
As immersed as Wagner is in his snowy sport, he will never let his Hawaiian identity slip away. Wherever he travels, his Hawaiian flag and ukulele are by his side.
“Hawaii is home, it’s where I was raised,” Wagner said. “I’m never really that far from home.”