One moment Roman Rico was running a vehicle checkpoint in Iraq. The next he was sent airborne inside a bulletproof Humvee after hitting an improvised explosive device.
Mere seconds. That’s all it takes for a life to change course.
The 36-year-old retired Army Staff Sergeant and forward for the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team lost his leg in the bombing, but gracefully learned that life can continue on.
Roman traded in his tactical headwear and vest for a sled hockey helmet and mesh jersey. He received a Purple Heart and began working toward Paralympic gold, learning along the way that there’s more than one way to represent his country.
Following ‘In Their Footsteps’
Hockey was never on Roman’s radar. He grew up in Portland, Ore. where his primary sports were football and wrestling. When not engaged in competitive sports, he had his sights set on a military career, and enlisted in the Army largely because of his uncles’ influence.
“My uncles were my role models in life. It’s not like they told me crazy war stories or anything like that. They were just great guys,” Roman said. “One of my uncles was a tanker in World War II. Another uncle served in the Army and went overseas to Europe. And one was in the Marine Corp. and served in the Vietnam War. I kind of wanted to follow in their footsteps.”
Roman trained hard and went on multiple deployments to Iraq to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom. He was on his third tour when the IED ended his seven-year military career.
“After leaving the vehicle checkpoint where we were making sure they didn’t have any bombs or weapons, I decided to be the lead vehicle back to the patrol base. I didn’t have to be, but that particular day, I chose to lead from the front,” Roman explained. “Sometimes you would see signs of an IED, like a wire across the ground, but we didn’t see anything and my vehicle struck it. We flew up in the air, and I was on the front passenger side. I got the wind knocked out of me, and I sustained injuries to both my left and right leg.”
Of the three servicemen in the vehicle, Roman took the brunt of the blow. He suffered compound fractures in his left leg and compound syndrome in his right.
In an attempt to save his left leg, surgeons inserted plates, screws and bolts to piece it back together.
“I had a lot of tissue damage, so they did a lot of debris cleaning, too” Roman said. “They took two of my calf muscles and put them over my knees. I wasn’t able to bend my knee on my left side.”
Doctors also had to “cut down” both sides of his right leg.
“That gave me nerve damage, so I have parts of my right leg I can’t really feel,” he said.
Roman arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center with both legs, but after a year and more than 10 surgeries to try and restore his left leg, he opted to have it amputated.
Following amputation, he was transferred to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where for another year, he took on a heavy dose of rehabilitation and learned how to walk on a prosthetic leg.
Taking to the Ice
Roman started to get involved in adaptive sports at Walter Reed, but once he arrived in Texas, he fully immersed himself, playing wheelchair basketball, football, soccer and softball. He was introduced to Operation Comfort, which provides rehabilitative therapeutic programs for wounded servicemen and servicewomen while they recover at Brooke Army Medical Center. These programs include activities like sled hockey, hand-cycling and amputee surfing.
“There were so many adaptive sports and recreational activities that kept my mind strong and focused instead of just kind of having to be there.” Roman said.
First, Operation Comfort asked him if he wanted to start handcycling. He was all in, and completed two 150-mile races to raise money for multiple sclerosis. Then they asked him to play sled hockey.
“I said ‘No’ a good handful of times because I was playing wheelchair basketball, and enjoying that a lot,” Roman said. “I didn’t grow up with hockey, didn’t play hockey and didn’t watch hockey. Eventually, I gave in and was instantly hooked on the speed of the game and its physicality. It’s almost like football on ice.”
It was the locker room that appealed to him, too. With military veterans at all stages of recovery, Roman found he could be himself.
“I got that sense of teamwork again, that brotherhood,” he said. “That’s what really kept me with the sport. I got to see how other people are overcoming their injuries. Even though I’m missing a leg, it wasn’t a big deal because everybody was injured in one way or another. Plus, that group of guys were just so much fun.”
A Sport for Warriors
Roman picked up the sport quickly. Two years after joining his first major league hockey team, he landed a spot on the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team and then secured his place on the 2014 Paralympic Team, which won gold after defeating Russia.
“Just being part of the team and winning, and sharing that moment with my two children, it was so overwhelming,” he said. “It was just an honor to be a part of that, and see our flag raised above the other country’s flag.”
Even though Roman found success at the highest level relatively fast, the sport itself is tough to get a handle on. One must balance in the sled with two blades, using a cross-country skiing motion to propel across the ice all while hitting the puck left and right-handed.
“We kind of joke around that stand-up players have it easier because they skate with the biggest muscles in their body, and then they shoot with their arms. We skate with our arms and have to shoot with our arms,” Roman said. “Then you see a stand-up player in the NHL, and when he gets hit up against the boards, those boards are kind of flexible. That bottom part of the board, where we get hit because we’re lower to the ground, that doesn’t flex. So, the sport is very physical.”
Roman and the U.S. Team had their first training camp at the end of September, and he describes the team as “young, fast and hard-working.”
He trains at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., lifting weights three times per week, improving his endurance on the Concept SkiErg and getting plenty of ice time. And the elite training facility is perfect for the former hard-charging solider.
“Everyone that’s in there is working so hard,” he said. “We have male and female athletes, Olympians and Paralympians in there. I feel like if you’re not fired up, all you have to do is look left or right to get motivated really quick.”
As for his advice to others looking to find motivation after a devastating accident, injury or illness?
“Find something that takes you from, ‘Now I can’t do this or that’ to something you actually can do. Even if it’s not a sport, there’s something out there for everybody. Find something that has you saying, ‘I’ve still got it.'”
Great words from someone who certainly still has it.