Kovacevic: Sports hero? No outranking Sgt. Olson
DALLAS — We’re all guilty of elevating sports to a level they’ll never deserve, of equating them with life-and-death issues like war. You know, the way we talk about the Penguins and Flyers being at war. Or how Ben Roethlisberger showed courage by scrambling on a sore ankle.
Or how anyone playing a child’s game can be a hero.
It’s because of our fighting men and women that we all have the right to express ourselves as we wish. But, speaking only for myself, I’ll try even harder to avoid this sports-as-war terminology in the future after Tuesday.
That’s when I shook the hand of Sgt. 1st Class Josh Olson.
Sgt. Olson is an Iraq war veteran from Spokane, Wash., and is still enlisted in the Army and stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. As such, he’s about to become the first active-duty soldier to represent the United States in shooting at the Paralympics, this August in London.
He doesn’t have a right leg.
It was blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade nine years ago.
“My goal is to inspire wounded veterans,” Sgt. Olson said yesterday as part of a riveting address to a room of 200 reporters at the U.S. Olympic Media Summit. “My goal is to inspire people with disabilities of any kind.”
And so, his goal is gold.
“For one day, I have a chance to be the best in the world. I can’t wait to get there.”
Sgt. Olson’s story isn’t for the faint of heart.
On the night of Oct. 27, 2003, six months after the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Sgt. Olson and his men were patrolling Baghdad when a rocket caught the back of his vehicle. A minute later, another rocket brought a direct hit.
“There was a flash of light, and I got the wind knocked out of me. I thought I was shot,” Sgt. Olson recalled. “They teach you to do an inventory when that happens, for arms and limbs. When I reached down for my right leg, there was nothing there. Where my leg used to be, there was a hole.”
From the hip down.
Sgt. Olson was flown to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington a week later. That’s when reality began to set in.
“You’re lying in a hospital bed, it’s 2 a.m., it’s dark, and all you can hear are footsteps out in the hallway,” he said. “You’re wondering: What’s next?”
A prosthetic leg was made for him. More reality.
“The first time I actually looked in the mirror with it … I had a lot of emotions. I was upset. But I was also like, I didn’t want to roll over and die.”
He also didn’t want to stop being Sgt. Olson. He returned to Fort Benning, where he could put his marksman skills — he’d been shooting since age 9 — to military use by instructing new soldiers.
“I couldn’t be in the fight anymore, but I could train the guys going over. I could teach them to save their life or their buddy’s life.”
On the side, his continued improvement at marksmanship led to competitive shooting. By 2006, he placed eighth at shooting’s world championship. Last year, he was the national champion and placed sixth at the World Cup in Sydney.
Sgt. Olson sits in a folding chair when shooting, usually eschewing the prosthetic leg because it can irritate. He didn’t have it yesterday, either, when he shared a stage with five otherParalympians.
That pretty much sums up the extent to which his injury affects him.
“Watching Sgt. Olson and all he does, knowing what he’s gone through … he makes us all proud to be Americans,” said Michael Molinaro, a Blackhawk High School graduate, a staff sergeant during two tours of duty in Iraq and the public affairs officer at Fort Benning. “He shows you that no matter how hard things get, you can always get back up.”
The inspiration of Sgt. Olson, 32, doesn’t stop there. He wrote essays to benefit earthquake victims of Haiti. He’s training to become a Paralympic Ambassador and counsel the newly disabled. He visits children in hospitals. He’s also made four return trips to Iraq as part of Operation Proper Exit, a program that allows soldiers to revisit the battleground and cope with any remaining angst.
The battle never ends, soldiers will say. When Sgt. Olson goes to London, he’ll wear the bracelets of soldiers who died alongside him in Iraq.
That’s the reality of war.
That’s a hero.