At 4 years old, Steve Cash became a cancer survivor.
Now, at 24, he is competing in sled hockey for Team USA at his third straight Paralympic Winter Games.
He may be two decades removed from osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that ultimately led to the amputation of his right leg. Still, that experience has shaped his life in countless ways.
As a preschooler, Cash found himself adjusting to life as an amputee. He started by learning to walk again using a prosthetic leg, but soon he was the most active kid on the block. The younger brother of three avid hockey players, it was no surprise that he was skating with his prosthetic by age 5.
“The real way I got into (hockey) was going into the backyard with my three older brothers,” Cash said. “I remember them strapping pillows and newspapers to me and hitting me with pucks as hard as they could, so that’s how I got into the position of being a goalie.”
Cash played hockey on able-bodied teams for most of his youth. But at age 14, he was at a tournament in St. Louis when a coach from the Disabled Athlete Sports Association (DASA), a Paralympic Sport Club, heard about his prosthetic and encouraged him to try sled hockey. With rules nearly identical to its able-bodied counterpart, sled hockey is a sport in which players compete sitting rather than standing and use two shortened hockey sticks instead of one.
Sitting or standing didn’t make a difference to Cash when it came to the sport he loved.
“To me, the game is the same no matter what. Hockey is hockey, so I figured I’d try it out,” Cash said. “And I fell in love with it.”
Cash joined DASA’s club team, the St. Louis Blues, in 2004. Just one season later, he had made his first U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. He earned his first trip to the Paralympic Winter Games in Torino in 2006, where Team USA took bronze. Cash was also a key member of the U.S. team that won gold at the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, where he was named the tournament’s MVP for not allowing a single goal in five games.
Today, he still works with DASA, the program that first introduced him to sled hockey. But now, he’s the one inspiring others to try out the sport.
“I believe in giving anyone and everyone an opportunity to participate in sports,” Cash said. “It’s something that I’m really passionate about. Growing up with a prosthetic there were times that I didn’t think that I could do something, but I had my family alongside me to really push me and motivate me. So I want to be one of those role models for another kid. You never know – they might be the next Paralympian.”
Though he likes coaching younger kids because he was once in their shoes, Cash said working with adults can be uniquely rewarding.
“It’s always fun to really motivate the kids, see their progress and see how they’re coming along. I like to kind of joke around with kids and make sure that they’re having a good time,” Cash said. “When it comes to adults with disabilities, you kind of have to take a different approach. For someone who’s more recently injured and they’re not sure where their life is going, I like to kind of see myself as an example of a success story, more or less – someone that had a traumatic event in their life in the past but has grown to do bigger and better things.”
Cash also knows that bringing exposure to adaptive sports and the Paralympic Movement can impact more than just the athletes competing.
“Whether it be for people with disabilities or without, I want to make sure the sport of sled hockey and the Paralympics get as much exposure as possible,” Cash said. “At the end of the day, all I can say is that I did my best to get it out there and show people what people with disabilities can do. That’s what’s most important to me – taking those misconceptions and turning them in to positive thoughts. I like to show people that I can go out there and do anything that you can do, even if sometimes it may be in a different way.”
Because of his childhood fight against osteosarcoma, Cash is a strong advocate for the pediatric cancer community. He recently started working with the Pediatric Cancer Foundation to help spread awareness about the unique needs of children who are fighting the battle.
“Having cancer at such a young age, it’s something that I hold close to my heart,” Cash said. “With all the research that’s going on with cancer and all the medicine that’s been developed, not all of those can be adapted for children. So for me, it’s really important to get the word out there for pediatric cancer because it requires totally different medicines to help kids fight the battle.”
Cash is humble about his own success story, too, knowing that some children are facing even bigger hurdles than he once did.
“What really baffles me is how long some kids have been in remission and how long they’ve been battling,” Cash said. “I was lucky because I was only in the hospital for about a year, but I see what other kids are going through for four, five, six years, and they’re still fighting. That really hits home to me. I see some kids who are struggling, but they still keep that positive attitude.”
In Sochi, Cash has a chance to compete for those children and for the communities that have helped him to where he is today. He is a powerful reminder of what survivors can achieve.
And whether he and Team USA are golden or not, he’s sure to make those communities proud.