Alpine skier John Lujan is preparing for the competition of a lifetime. Beginning this weekend, he’ll race in the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.
Lujan, a former Marine, is one of more than a dozen competitors on the U.S. Paralympic team who is also a war veteran.
Lujan was injured in Iraq in 2003 when his armored vehicle came under fire and swerved off the road. During the accident he ruptured two discs, and the subsequent surgery damaged his spinal cord and led to paralysis below the waist. Lujan is now able to walk–and ski–but has permanent nerve damage and paralysis in his lower legs.
To help him control his skis, Lujan uses special ski boots that lock his feet in a neutral position.
“They’re kind of like casts, basically,” Lujan says. “The tighter I get them, the less my feet move and the more I can control the skis with my knees, ankles and hips."
Lujan grew up skiing in Winter Park, but didn’t return to it until 2008 when a fellow veteran introduced him to the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo.
He says he and other veterans on the U.S. Paralympic team share a strong connection because of their military experience -- and they all have a similar approach to competing.
“I don’t really know how to quit,” Lujan says. “That’s something you’ll find in a lot of the veteran athletes that are going. We have pretty good drive and determination and we don’t like to say ‘no.’”
Lujan says that, like many veterans, when he returned from Iraq he struggled to readjust to civilian life. He thinks skiing saved him.
“I was going down a bad path in 2006,” Lujan says. “I was drinking a lot and taking a lot of prescription pills. I was angry and took it out on my loved ones. Getting back into an active lifestyle, it helps release the endorphins and it’s a good way to get out there and conquer your demons.”
The Paralympics open Friday, March 7, and run through March 16. Hear a preview of the games with Erik Petersen, competition director for the National Sports Center for the Disabled.
Lujan will compete in the Super-G, the Giant Slalom and the Slalom events. He says his goal is to place in the top 15 in each of his races.