Along life’s pathways we discover points of inspiration and occasionally, there are beacons that shine so brightly, it’s impossible to ignore their luminance. Meeting face-to-face with the strength of the human spirit never ceases to exhilarate me. Patrick Sapp, winner of the U. S. Paralympian Hockey Gold Medal, is a prime example — he brightens the world and deeply touches lives wherever he goes. I first met Sapp at the 2003 Dallas Mayor’s Committee Stars of Texas Salute Gala, where he was named a “Star Award” winner, but the night was bustling and not conductive to much more than small talk. Shortly after the event, however, I got the chance to sit down with him over5 lunch. The more we visited, the more inspired I became. Pat (as he’s known to his friends) spends his life in a wheelchair, the result of a Vietnam-era training exercise.
Under the cover of darkness and in the pouring rain, a mid-air paratrooper collision left Sapp with a severe spinal cord injury and 172 broken bones. In and out of the VA hospital for three years, he spent 18 months flat on his back, unable to move. After a team of doctors and therapists were finally able to get him into a wheelchair without his passing out, Pat somehow found the fortitude to begin picking up the pieces of his life, though just 21, his future appeared bleak.
Exploring the hospital in his wheelchair one day, Sapp ended up in the basement where he found the groundskeeper’s equipment, including a lawnmower. His ingenuity kicked in and soon his nights were spent shuffling the hospital floors, using that lawnmower as a makeshift walker to help him reach the goal of someday walking unassisted again. “Sometimes I could last for an hour ……sometimes only 15 minutes,” he said. “It took every bit of strength I had to walk the floors… but I walked… every night I walked until I would walk all night long. I waited until the late-night shift came on and the hospital was basically closed. No one ever said anything to me, so I kept walking. I busted my face and nose falling down, but seeing other people walking in and out of the hospital every day, getting into their cars and driving away, made me determined to do the same.”
The next stage of his new life found him living with his parents. Soon after, his truck was modified, allowing him the independence to drive. “I just cried. I had worked so hard,” he said. “It was then I found that disabled parking, if available at all, was usually in the alleyways. There was little out there for those of us with disabilities and with even less public education available regarding the disabled, people were just cruel …. Kids laughed and pointed, adults looked the other way or patted me on the head. Those were not the best of times.” A subsequent automobile accident resulting from a blood clot landed Sapp in the hospital yet again and though as devastating as it seemed, that very event would soon change Sapp’s life for the better. For there, he met fellow disabled veteran, Tom Wheaton. Wheaton told stories about a VA sponsored Winter Sports Clinic in Crested Butte, Colorado. At the time, Sapp had lost his motivation. He simply didn’t care. Despondent and angry, he lived in isolation deep in the woods of northern Wisconsin, nurturing the heavy burden of a growing chip on his shoulder. His house provided the solitude he so longed for. It was the only place where he felt safe. Sapp’s “safety in solitude” ceased one day when the doorbell rang. Tom Wheaton came calling, bringing with him two able-bodies friends who, against Sapp’s strong objections, proceeded to pack his bag, carry him to the car, and strap him on an airplane bound for the Winter Sports Clinic. At the clinic, Sapp learned to ski and his disabled existence was traded for a life with a disability. “I saw 300 disabled vets learning how to ski. After a couple of days as a spectator, they put me on the snow with an able-bodies guy. I thought the dude was mentally deranged and I just knew I was getting ready to die,” recalled Sapp. “Well, I didn’t die … I skied … and skied … and skied! I sold my house in Wisconsin and moved to the base of a slope in Bend, Oregon, so I could ski all the time.”
The competitive sports he’d so enjoyed as a child were his again as he attended the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. He became a certified ski instructor for the disabled (though he teaches the able-bodies as well.) When our own Dallas Stars donated $10,000 for an amateur sled ice hockey team (for which Sapp was an organizer), the Dallas Stars played an exhibit game against the U. S. Paralympic team. This lead to Sapp’s invitation to compete for the national team.
Sapp won his first Olympic gold medal in Paralympic hockey in 2002 at Salt Lake City and continues to compete and mentor those newly injured … those who’ve have not had the time to completely heal physically or emotionally. To date, he has won five world medals, 87 national medals, one Paralympian gold medal, the paralympian “Spirit of the Games” award, the national veterans “Spirit of the Games” award and the U. S. Hockey “Bob Johnson” award.
Moving more gracefully in his wheelchair than most do on two legs, Pat Sapp continues to be a monumental inspiration to all those he touches. He drives a Ford pickup, modified by Wrightway, Inc., and spends his weekends working on his hot rods, which Wrightway hs also modified to accommodate Pat’s specific needs. In his continuing effort to help others, Sapp has partnered with Wheels for the World, a program benefiting the disabled in third-world countries.
This prompted Sapp to start his own program called “Wheels of Hope”. There are very few programs for people with disabilities in these countries, and those that do exist are substandard. Sapp, while traveling overseas with the Paralympic team, once gave his own wheelchair to a disabled man who had never experienced mobility. Discarded wheelchairs are collected by Sapp, then refurbished by the inmates of an prisons around the United States, and sent to these countries via medical teams. “I scout for used wheelchairs at garage sales mostly,” said Sapp. “People have them stored in attics and garages because, once they’re no longer needed, they don’t really know what to do with them. Giving them to others is a great way to contribute to the project.” Wheels of Hope also gives out wheelchairs to the needy and homeless in the United States.
In 2011, Pat was asked by the United States Olympic Association to be the Director for the State of Texas “World Fit” program and is currently working with schools launching this program. This program fights obesity with children. Pat coordinates Middle School participation in a 60-mile walk that the students commit to. Also, Pat is involved in the bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics/Paralympics to be held in the state of Texas.
Inspiration comes to us in many ways … we read of someone in need or someone resolving that need; we hear an awesome story of one overcoming incredible obstacles; we witness a wrong that needs to be righted. It’s long been said that adversity can make or break a person and when given the right mentoring and nurturing, it can bring strength and build character that was beforehand unfathomable. If the story of Patrick Sapp doesn’t motivate you to get off your duff and make a difference in your community, then you’d better check your pulse!
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