Athlete proves disabled doesn’t mean incapable

Copyright Ryersonian(This article was published in The Ryersonian on March 22, 2011) Paul Rosen thinks the worst thing anyone can hear is that they’re incapable of doing something they want to achieve.

“For me, it’s all about equality,” he said.  “It’s all about doing what you want to do and getting respect.”

Just after Disability Awareness Week, the Paralympic gold medallist was at Ryerson’s Student Campus Centre last Thursday to share his experiences as an elite sledge hockey player. The event was hosted by RyeAccess.

Rosen, who was born able-bodied, was a 15-year-old from Thornhill dreaming of playing hockey for Team Canada until his right skate got caught in a rut on the ice while playing a tournament in Barrie.  His right leg snapped in 14 places.

While doctors were able to revive his leg, Rosen endured multiple surgeries as problems with his knee continued. In 1999, the infection spread to his bone. Amputation was the only option to keep him alive.

Rosen, now 51, credits the surgery for relieving him of all the pain and stress he has endured since the injury that first stopped his hockey-playing career.

“It’s a leg,” he said.  “There are millions of people in the world who have it way worse.”

A year later, Rosen was back on the ice.  This time, it was playing sledge hockey for Canada after making the national team at the age of 40.

He was introduced to the game by a 12-year-old boy who was missing three limbs. Rosen was hooked after playing the goalie position.

“Sledge hockey is an incredible game,” he said. “The only difference from able-bodied hockey is we’re playing on sleds, not skates.  We skate with our arms.  Other than that, it’s pretty much the same game.”

Since then he has played sledge hockey competitively for 10 years, serving as Team Canada’s goalie in three Paralympic Games:  2002 in Salt Lake City, 2006 in Torino, and 2010 in Vancouver.

Unable to win a medal at Salt Lake City, Rosen and the rest of his team “ate, breathed, and slept” the Torino Games for the next four years.  In 2006, they succeeded and won Paralympic gold.

“It was the greatest thrill because we went into the Games with no chance to win,” he said, reminiscing about the match.

“Everybody gave us the silver pretty well before the gold medal game.  We pulled together as a team and as a family to win the gold medal (against Norway).  (Seeing) 75, 000 people at Closing Ceremonies and knowing that everybody there wanted to grab you or shake your hand . . . it was something I’ll never forget.”

Nostalgic from the win, Rosen decided to continue to be a part of the sport, and went on to train for the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics despite being in his late 40s.

“In Vancouver, we were rock stars everywhere we went.  It didn’t matter where it was.  Everybody knew us, everybody screamed for us,” he said.

Now retired, Rosen’s goalie mask resides in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Currently, he spends his time as a motivational speaker for students and tells them that they can achieve anything if they commit themselves to it.

“Just because you’re disabled, doesn’t mean you’re dead.  Doesn’t mean your life ends.  My life began when I became disabled.  I want the able-bodied community to look at somebody who’s disabled and look at them for what they can do, not what they can’t do,” he said.

While most of the campus was busy celebrating St. Patrick’s Day festivities, those who attended Disability Awareness Week, such as David Fourney, were inspired.

Fourney, 41, is a PhD student in mechanical engineering who is hearing impaired. Fourney said Rosen’s speech gave him a positive outlook on life.

“I got a lot of it in terms of just thinking about overall attitude towards life and thinking about how one can achieve interesting things in their lives,” he said.

“To think that a person who is in their 40s suddenly becomes an elite hockey athlete in this country . . . that’s really surprising.  I say that because I’m in my 40s too.  Back in the day when Wayne Gretzky was the big person on the ice, every kid wanted to grow up and be like Wayne Gretzky.  But not everybody can achieve that.  To see that Paul Rosen has achieved that in his own field, in his own areas, I think that’s really an amazing thing.”

For Rosen, acceptance of disability is still an ongoing challenge but he remains positive. “If we find the ability in disability, then we’ve won.” he said.

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