Ice sledge hockey star Christina Picton part of AthletesCAN

Having first mounted the sled with the Niagara Thunderblades in 2004, Christina Picton has become one of Canada’s finest female competitors. In addition to building a remarkable sporting legacy, she has also built a legacy of leadership. Currently, she serves as captain of both the Thunderblades and the Canadian National Women’s Ice Sledge Hockey Team.

Although she was born with a deficiency that altered the growth of her legs, eventually resulting in the amputation of her lower right leg, Picton’s enthusiasm and high energy are a source of encouragement. Having recently graduated from Niagara College among the top of her class, Picton has ambitions to become a graphic designer.

With her attendance at the annual AthletesCAN Forum held in Mississauga, Ontario, it was a chance to extend her legacy and obtain insights that can make the national team stronger and encourage teammates to unleash their full potential. Of note, AthletesCAN is an association for Canadian national team athletes, allowing such talented and inspiring individuals the opportunity to gather outside of competition.

Representing the national team at the event, Picton did more than raise awareness that women play ice sledge hockey. Her presence proved to be a way to inspire others that disabled athletes are prominent members of the sporting community, able to make remarkable contributions if given the chance.

Surrounded by a remarkable group of Canadian female athletes such as Claire Carver, Perditia Felicien, Karina LeBlanc, Rosanna Tomiuk and Betty Trevino, it was an opportunity for Picton to gain perspective as to the triumphs and obstacles that other women in Canadian sport have experienced.

Bringing an eagerness to learn, the event proved to be highly rewarding for Picton. Topics of discussion included “Determining your Own Path to Leadership”, plus “Best practices in Athlete Representation models”. A presentation focusing on “Why Athlete Representation?” was also on the agenda.

Common ground among all the athletes on hand included funding, something Picton and her teammates are not immune to. While she juggles career with athletics, costs such as international travel, ice time and equipment could be eased with the assistance of sponsorship.

With women’s ice sledge hockey poised to be a demonstration sport at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, the next three years are essential to providing some much needed attention to the players and their admirable efforts. Taking into account that the Labbatt USA has become a sponsor for US ice sledge hockey in 2015-16, it should help raise awareness for the sport, hopefully providing the Canadian women’s team with a much needed sponsor. For now, the Canadian team has merchandise available on its website, while several players, including Picton have established pages on a fund raising site.

To support Picton’s athletic dreams, please visit: https://www.gofundme.com/christinasledge

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Rachel Grusse among fresh faces for US ice sledge hockey team in exhibition series

Having first risen to prominence as a swimmer, Rachel Grusse is emerging a two-sport star. A double amputee (bilateral below knee), she has adapted very well to ice sledge hockey, learning how to stay balanced in the sled and not fall over, while receiving (and giving) hits.

Among a growing group of female competitors in the Northeast Sled Hockey League, she skates for the Connecticut Wolfpack, joining the likes of Kelly Lavoie and Karen Smith. As a side note, other women competing in the league include Kristina Vaughn with New York, and Christy Gardner with the USA Warriors.

Such effort has culminated with the change to accomplish a dream of competing for the United States women’s ice sledge hockey team. In the background of the 2015 Men’s Ice Sledge Hockey championships, hosted in Buffalo, New York, a three-game exhibition series took place. With members of the Canadian and US national women’s teams renewing rivalries, they were also on-hand at the men’s championships to show their support.

During such exhibition series, both national teams take the opportunity to evaluate talent, allowing new faces an opportunity to take their sleds to the ice. For Rachel Grusse, the chance to don the US jersey was only eclipsed by the chance to call Karen Smith, one of the game’s elders, as a teammate. The elation of the event only served to motivate Grusse, who logged the game-winning tally in the second game.

At the tender age of 16 months old, Rachel needed to have both of her legs amputated below the knees (including the loss of her fingertips) due to an injury. With prosthetic limbs, Grusse would eventually attempt other sports such as biking, soccer and skiing. During her time as a student at Glastonbury High School, her first exposure to athletic competition came in the swimming pool.

Without the use of her prosthetic limbs, Grusse would actually compete in able-bodied events. Her athetlic sojourn into swimming would reach a truning point in 2004 when she met Jean Karpuk and became affiliated with the Hospital for Special Care WAVES swim team. Able to train and compete among other disabled athletes, she would close out 2004 by participating at the Junior National Disabled Swim Championships.

Duplicating the feat again in 2005, Grusse experienced another milestone that year. As the first adapted swimmer from Connecticut to compete in the short course Eastern Zone championship meet, an able-bodied swim meet. Building on such momentum, she qualified to compete at the US Paralympic Swimming nationals. Setting a new national record in the 200-meter backstroke (S8 classification), she was invited to compete at the International Wheelchair and Amputee Sports World Games.

Although Grusse would not qualify for the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, she remained internationally ranked by the IPC in three events: the 400-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke and 100-meter breaststroke. Considering that women’s ice sledge hockey shall be a demonstration sport at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, it may offer Grusse with the opportunity to make her Paralympic goals a reality. Considering that sport has provided Grusse with health and enjoyment, it makes Grusse a winner regardless of the sport that she competes in.

Christy Gardner redefines the meaning of courage

The resiliency and bravery of a remarkable woman like Christy Gardner is one of her sporting hallmarks. A member of the US National Women’s Ice Sledge Hockey, she helped the program make history by capturing the inaugural gold medal in the 2014 IPC Sledge Hockey Cup. Also a member of the USA Warriors club team, she had the opportunity to grace the ice at Nationals Stadium in Washington, DC. For those who know Gardner, they can also attest that her heroism also goes beyond the ice.

Image obtained from Facebook. Photo credit: Lily Fundis

Image obtained from Facebook. Photo credit: Lily Fundis

Prior to the beginning of her hockey journey, she was a member of the US military and suffered a life-changing injury. Traumatic injuries resulted in the chronic occurrence of seizures, along with minimal feeling in her ankles and feet. While Gardner is accompanied at all times by a service dog (she also volunteers her time in training them), she can only walk with braces in her legs.

Despite the injuries sustained, Gardner continues to enjoy life, facing it with a quiet but admirable dignity that is a great source of inspiration. Throughout the road to recovery, Gardner had made the visceral decision that the amputation of her lower legs would ease her suffering. Replacing them with prosthetic limbs may be the remedy to reduce the pain, while making it easier to breathe as well.
Sadly, she can injure her feet as she cannot feel them, only compounding to her medical woes.

While it was a decision that took great courage, there was a setback for Gardner. Originally, a surgeon from the military was going to participate in the surgery. After the commitment was made to perform the procedure, the surgeon endured a change of heart and was no longer comfortable performing it. Gardner was encouraged to use a wheelchair for mobility.

From a medical perspective, it would be understandable to experience fear or concern about engaging in such a procedure. Considering how difficult it must be psychologically to tell a patient (especially one that suffered an injury in the military) that a limb was removed, knowing that a life will be altered because of it, a great stress is accompanied by it.

On the other hand, it is Gardner’s body and she has the right to decide what is best. While such a move may augment discussion and generate debate about the pros and cons related, the patient should be allowed the right to decide what it best for them.

Taking into account that she suffered the injury while in military service, it only makes the right to make such a choice even more important. If she has determined that amputation is the only way to continue life with a reduced degree of pain, she deserves to be applauded for her courage. No one can understand the effects of the pain better than her, and she is only deserving of the support of family, friends and fans alike.

While she has found a private doctor willing to perform the procedure, she has also established a website in order to raise funds. As she is scheduled to have the left leg amputated very soon, the reality is still a very scary one.

Should everything go well, the time required to learn to use prosthetics and heal from the surgery should see her walking in less than two months. With her rehabilitation to occur over six weeks at Walter Reed hospital, she will need the support of funding to cover the cost of staying there as an outpatient, airfare to and from, along with a series of adaptations for home and vehicle.

Although there are not enough words to acknowledge her bravery, an indisputable fact is that her courage and dignity are such that most can never know. Under such difficult circumstances, the most positive factor for those concerned about her health and well-being is remembering that the end result is improving the quality of her life.