Sports always came easy to Christy Gardner of Lewiston. She was a standout athlete at Edward Little High School. In college, she was the goalie for both her field hockey and lacrosse teams. A two-week experiment with ice hockey, however, didn’t go so well.
“I was awful and (then) I broke my wrist,” recalled Gardner. “My lacrosse coach asked me to quit, since I was on a lacrosse scholarship.”
Little did she know that ice hockey – or more accurately, sled hockey – would play such a major role in helping her recover after she suffered a traumatic brain injury while stationed in South Korea with the U.S. Army in 2006. Gardner was recently named USA Hockey’s 2013 Disabled Athlete of the Year. She has been a member of the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey team for 21?2 years.
“This award is a tremendous honor,” says Gardner, 31. “(It) does not necessarily go to the best athlete, but to one who is the best kind of teammate. It means a lot to me that people see that side of sport and that side of me.”
Gardner took up sled hockey, which involves propelling yourself across the ice on an adaptive sled, at the suggestion of Neal Williams, a Vietnam veteran. After her discharge from the Army, she was making progress in rehab, relearning to walk, to write sentences and to do basic math. But she was still having grand mal seizures and had been told that she would never be able to play sports again.
Williams, the New England Paralyzed Veterans of America representative, kept in touch with Gardner. He saw the toll her diagnosis was taking on her and her family. He “bugged” Gardner to join him at some events for disabled veterans.
“I finally gave in,” recalls Gardner. “That’s when I got some of my life back.”
Through the organization, she learned to kayak, snowboard, surf and water ski. She saw how others around her coped with being disabled and came to believe that her life could get better.
And she took an immediate liking to sled hockey.
“It was a real turning point,” she says.
For Gardner, there was much about sled hockey to like. She loved the physical contact, the need for strength and speed, and the feeling of working with a team toward a common goal again. After only six months of playing the game, she tried out for the national women’s team in 2011 – and made it.
Now, she spends one weekend a month working out or competing with the national team. She also spends a weekend each month playing with another recently formed sled hockey team, the USA Warriors, made up of veterans wounded in action. The rest of her life is devoted to her work as a personal trainer for high school and college athletes and for a local fire department. She also works for a local landscaping company.
Seven years after her accident (the specifics of which she remembers, but isn’t at liberty to talk about), Gardner lives independently with her seizure-alert golden retriever named Moxie. Her mother, who Gardner says was “especially affected that her baby girl was not the same any more,” is thrilled to see how full her grown-up daughter’s life has become.
In many ways, Gardner says her life is more fulfilling than it was before her accident. Going forward, she plans to continue training to keep her spot on the Women’s National team. If she makes the travel roster again, she’ll compete in Oslo, Norway, in September. Then she plans to play in an exhibition with the USA Warriors at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Winter Olympics next March.
Gardner’s long-term goal is to bring more awareness to adaptive sports, she says, “so that others who are stuck in a rut, like I was, can see what is still out there for them. It’s been a long road, but it’s definitely one with a positive ending.”