By Lilly Kashishian
Adversity. There isn’t a champion in the world who hasn’t been through it in some regard.
Army veteran and U.S. Women’s National Team sled hockey player Christy Gardner, 33, has been through enough challenges to fill an entire stadium.
After suffering devastating injuries while overseas and returning home to more health problems, Gardner could have easily thrown in the towel and resigned to her couch. Instead, the former college field hockey and lacrosse player adjusted her expectations, and chose a course of action that led her back to competing; this time, at a gold medal level.
Changed on the Outside and Inside
A scholarship athlete at Long Island University, Gardner played field hockey and helped her lacrosse team to the NCAA Division II Final Four in each of her four years at the school. Upon graduation, she joined the Army.
“It’s a great and honorable career,” Gardner said. “Serving in the military definitely runs in my family. My grandfather served, my uncle served, and a couple of my cousins served. Of course, they’re Navy and Marines so they give me hell for going into the Army.”
While stationed overseas in 2006, Gardner sustained life-altering injuries while on a peacekeeping mission. She suffered a traumatic brain injury (a skull fracture in her frontal lobe), and a spinal cord injury at L2, which caused her to lose sensation below her knee. She also had her left leg amputated and lost two fingers on her left hand.
After multiple surgeries, Gardner endured long-term physical therapy and speech rehabilitation at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center in New England, but the battle was far from over.
Due to her brain injury, she developed grand mal seizures. To alert her to an event, she has a golden retriever service dog named Moxie, who gets Gardner to a safe place prior to a seizure. Moxie is also trained to open and close doors, ring the neighbor’s doorbell, and dial 911.
Gardner also developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Moxie isn’t a trained therapy dog, but she helps Gardner through difficult situations.
“Imagine bringing your best friend everywhere you go. If I’m in a stressful situation or something happens that triggers my PTSD, she’s right there,” Gardner said. “I can always pat her head or even at night, if I have nightmares or flashbacks, she helps calm me down. Moxie reassures me everywhere I go. She’s my battle buddy.”
Due to the ramifications of her injuries, Gardner’s doctors gave her a long list of limitations. Rather than letting the words of medical professionals settle into her brain, Gardner decided test those limits.
Suiting Up for Winter
After one veteran continually encouraged her to attend some VA events outside of formal therapy, Garnder signed up for a one-day winter sports clinic that the VA hosted.
“I gave in just to kind of shut him up!” Gardner said.
The clinic included skiing and snowboarding, both of which Gardner participated in. Like any beginner snowboarder, she fell, and when she did, a hand was offered to her in unsuspecting form.
“This guy said, ‘Hey, do you need a hand?’ He reached out an arm and he had no hand,” Garnder said. “The man was a Vietnam veteran who had lost both of his hands in combat. To have all of these vets around me, who were more significantly impaired than me, but more functional and happy in their lives, made me realize if they can do it, I can do it.”
While Gardner enjoyed her time on the snow, she fell in love with the clinic’s nighttime activity — sled hockey.
“I spent about twenty minutes on the ice. Almost all of which was spent on my elbows because I could not balance at all,” Gardner said. “It was ugly but I absolutely fell in love with it, so I took it from there.”
Icing to Heal
Gardner dove right into the sport, and today, she excels on the ice, playing for the USA Warriors, the USA Women’s National Team, and a New England-based sled hockey team.
She even won a gold medal at the 2014 World Championship, where the team beat Canada on Canadian soil.
“To be in their own country, in front of all of their fans, and we came away with the medal; it was outstanding,” Gardner said.
Gardner trains six days a week and the work load is no joke.
“It’s brutal. It’s all arms and core. Your lat muscles, obliques, frontal abs, and hip flexors are all worked,” Gardner explained. ”To play sled hockey, you use your core to turn and check, and your arms to balance and propel you…If you skated every single day, only two of those sessions would count as your training.”
Along with the physical benefits of sled hockey, Gardner reaps the rewards that come with an automatic support system.
“The girls on the team are really like family and when I have good news, the first ones I tell are often my teammates,” Gardner said. “Whenever we’re going through a rough patch, we can lean on one another.”
Gardner also leans on her family, particularly her sister, Mariah.
“Whenever I sit on the couch, she’s says, ‘Nope, get your workout in’ or whenever I have a rough day, she’s there to yell at me to get me moving.”
Gardner counts athletes in the National Women’s Hockey League, the National Women’s Soccer League, and other various leagues as her role models, which is a little backwards when you think about it. After all, Gardner is the ultimate role model and has the wisdom to back it up.
“There’s no room for excuses. If you can find an excuse, someone can find an answer,” Gardner said. “If you’re sitting on your butt and coming up with excuses with why you can’t do it, someone is coming up with reasons why they can.”
There’s also no hockey mask thick enough to hide Gardner’s true character — one that shows that making choices rather than excuses is a good way to get through some of life’s most difficult trials.