Tammy Landeen doesn’t like sitting on the sidelines. This 44-year-old Caribou resident spent more years than she’d like to admit being a spectator, watching her life pass her by from the safety of her wheelchair. But not anymore. The Army veteran—turned adaptive sports athlete extraordinaire—is training for a spot on the U.S. Para Bobsled team. She loves to push herself and her body to the limits in hopes of participating in the next Paralympic World Cup in Lake Placid, New York.
“I can honestly say my accident was probably the best thing that happened to me,” Tammy says. “One day I was riding my horse, and something spooked her. She took off and weaved through the trees. She was heading toward the left of a tree and at the last second went to the right and I impacted the trunk of a Georgia pine tree, the size of a telephone pole, at about 30 miles an hour.”
Tammy’s life was forever altered after that 2005 incident. Her husband Shawn, who is also an Army veteran, was serving overseas at the time. Once he received word, the Army immediately sent him to the couple’s home in Georgia to be by his wife’s side.
“They didn’t tell him the extent of my injuries. I broke 28 bones. I broke my back in five places and punctured a lung,” Tammy vividly recalls. “While he was packing his stuff to come home, he said he envisioned my legs in a cast and an arm in a cast. When he landed in Atlanta and called my mother to tell her he was back in the States, that’s when she told him I’d never walk again.”
Then only 28 years old, Tammy had suffered a spinal cord injury, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. She spent six months in the hospital and endured many months of painful physical therapy.
“I spent much of my time at inpatient rehab just learning simple things like sitting up unsupported or learning to roll over from my back to my stomach and back again—simple movements that you don’t realize how much you use your legs for. So, it was a long road. It was tough,” Tammy continues. “The first few years I was okay with being in a wheelchair. I had a husband and two kids, and I was okay with living my life, but I definitely wasn’t living my best life.”
The Landeens eventually moved from Georgia to Florida, where Tammy’s life changed for the better the moment she was introduced to handcycling in 2010.
“At first I wanted no part of it. Everyone was pushing me to go try it. Shawn had been home from Afghanistan 48 hours when he took me out of the house kicking and screaming to go on a handcycle ride with three other people in wheelchairs,” she remembers. “But then they got me on that handcycle, and I didn’t look back. The ability to do something that was taken away, and to be free and have the wind in my hair, was absolutely life-changing.”
Tammy contacted the Department of Veterans Affairs, who assisted her in acquiring her very own handcycle.
“The guys I had met the weekend of my first handcycle ride said there was a handcycle racing team for paralyzed veterans and invited me to race with them in Pensacola, Florida,” Tammy explains. “I don’t think there was a second that I thought, ‘This is nuts.’ I went from lazy and unmotivated to training six or seven days a week because I was preparing for a 26-mile race in two months. That was really the catalyst into adaptive sports and a whole new mindset for me.”
For many years, Tammy was one with the road, riding her handcycle on short and long treks in the sunshine state. She even competed in the Boston Marathon and later went on to win the Marine Core Marathon in Washington, D.C., in 2015. When her family moved to their hometown of Caribou, Maine, Tammy parked her handcycle, but she kept her competitive spirit in drive.
“A girlfriend I handcycled with got involved in para bobsled. She talked about me to the coach and to the organizer,” Tammy recalls. “They invited me to a beginner’s bobsled camp in Lake Placid and asked if I wanted to try it out. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ What I didn’t know is that it was also the team selection for the year. They saw enough potential in me that they said, ‘There’s a pilot camp in Norway, and if you successfully complete it, then we’ll put you on the U.S. Para bobsled team.’”
Tammy returned to Caribou and immediately started fundraising to pursue an opportunity of a lifetime, a spot on the USA team.
“This community really came together to help me raise the money because we don’t have corporate sponsors. Anything I do, I have to do out of my pocket,” she says. “Two overseas flights out of Presque Isle and living in Europe, a couple of weeks at a time, isn’t cheap, but I’ve had great community support here in the county.”
Tammy successfully completed the camp in Lillehammer, Norway. She learned the knowledge and skills necessary to sharpen her techniques in order to solo pilot a bobsled (also known as a mono bobsled) at an Olympic caliber level. That experience boosted her onto the World Cup stage in Norway before she traveled to Oberhoff, Germany, in 2019. There she finished 13th overall and was the number one U.S. ranked athlete for the race.
“From the time I get launched off until I get down to the bottom, nothing else is going through my mind except I count out loud, calculating what corner I am heading into.” Tammy explains. “It’s like a dance. It’s a beautifully choreographed dance. If you miss a step, you have to try and fix it, and there’s not a lot of time to fix it because you’re down the course in less than a minute.”
Being the only person in the bobsled, Tammy is responsible for the driving, the speed, and the ability to put on the brakes when she reaches the end of the track.
“Part of the requirements to qualify for para bobsled is participants must have a spinal cord injury, a double below the knee, or be a single above the knee amputee.” She also notes athletes must get in and out of the bobsled unassisted. “You’re strapped in there. You’ve got a helmet on while piloting this sled with a D ring and a bungee cord while traveling 50 to 60 miles an hour. You have to be strong enough to pull that brake which is nothing more than a fork that comes down and grabs the ice, and it’s what stops the bobsled. It’s a dangerous sport.”
Tammy is training in hopes of qualifying again for the USA team, which will be selected in November. Disabled athletes will participate in two back-to-back days of racing, where their individual race times from both days will be added together. The top three fastest men and three fastest women will be
selected to the team to go on to compete in the IBSF [International Bobsleigh & Skeleton Federation] World Cup. The world cup circuit begins in November in New York, and ends with the World Championships held in Norway, in February of 2022.
“It’s an adrenaline rush. You’re pulling 4, 5 or 6Gs [the force against your body] going around corners, and it’s a feeling the average person, or able-bodied person, doesn’t get to feel. And I get to do it,” Tammy reflects. “If I could write a letter to myself and mail it back in time, I’d definitely tell myself to get off my butt and get out there because there’s a lot to discover and life is absolutely incredible.