Pilot in Command – Take Control!
Flying a parachute confidently is far safer than being timid...
With the World Skydiving Championships fast approaching, I find myself reflecting on the hundreds of jumps our team has made in preparations for the event. I recall days when my teammates and I seemed perfectly in sync, making all the right moves, flying fast and fluid while ripping through a beautiful blue sky, bathed in comfortable temperatures and light winds. In sharp contrast, I remember miserably cold days with botched block execution, hard openings, blustery winds, rough landings, painfully frozen hands and ample frustration.
When aches and pains begin to take their toll and frustrations mount, the challenges of high volume training can seem overwhelming. During these times, it's natural to experience a little self-doubt. We all experience these moments, whether they be in skydiving or in daily life. When I catch myself brooding, though, I try to change my negative thought process as quickly as possible. I find it easy to snap out of my little pity party when I shift my thoughts to an inspiring friend and former Golden Knight teammate, Howie Sanborn.
Howie knows all too well the vast sweep of panoramic pain, both physical and psychological, the limits of which are only understood by those who have faced challenges of the same degree and kind. He's overcome a myriad of obstacles, many of which we take for granted, any of which would stop even the most optimally functioning person in their tracks.
As a demonstration parachutist with the U.S. Army Golden Knight's Black Demonstration Team, Howie performed thousands of jumps in numerous locations across the United States. Though he loved jumping, he enjoyed even more the opportunity to tell his Army story and share his love of the Army with the American public. As an ambassador for the U.S. Army, Howie hoped to make a difference. He wanted to make a positive change in the way people perceived the military and strove to convince more Americans to serve their country.
In 2009 Howie took up cycling as a hobby and loved it. During the same year, he also started swimming as a low impact means of maintaining high level fitness. He excelled at both. Though a seemingly logical next step, Howie had no desire to compete in a triathlon and thought it to be a terribly crazy thing for anyone to do. While in Kirksville, Missouri for an airshow, Howie heard about the North East Missouri (NEMO) Triathlon. Coincidentally, he happened to have the day off and decided to register for the race on a whim. “I'm not sure why it seemed like such a good idea to sign up for the race,” Howie recalls, “especially since I hadn't been training for a triathlon and had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I completed the race and was hooked!” Over the next few years, Howie developed an obsession for his newfound hobby and trained relentlessly in his off-time.
Howie and his team returned to Kirksville in 2012, the very place he completed his first triathlon. The morning before the airshow, Howie and teammate Jon Lopez woke up early to go on a 20-mile training ride. As Howie clipped into his pedals, he had no idea he was about to embark on a journey that would drastically change his life. A few miles from the end of their training ride, a distracted driver veered off the road and struck Howie from behind. At 65 miles per hour, the force of the impact violently launched Howie and his bike into Jon, crashing both into a roadside ditch.
Regaining consciousness in a hospital bed, Howie came to a tragic realization. “I knew I was paralyzed but I had no idea how it happened. It was terrifying, something no person should have to experience. It's impossible to put into words, the feeling of waking up in a hospital bed, knowing everything that I had worked for and poured my everything into was over.”
I knew I was paralyzed but I had no idea how it happened. It was terrifying, something no person should have to experience... knowing everything I'd worked for was over
Before Howie became a Golden Knight, he served as an elite U.S. Army Ranger, specially-trained in Long Range Surveillance (LRS). To become a Ranger, Howie had to attend Ranger School. The 61-day gauntlet is considered to be the most physically and mentally demanding leadership school in the Army and the toughest combat course in the world. Ranger students are exposed to severe weather, rugged terrain, hunger, physical fatigue and psychological stress. Upon successful completion of the Army's toughest combat leadership course, Howie earned the right to wear the coveted Ranger Tab, and in the process he became adroit at overcoming challenges and obstacles of all types. He served five years with the Rangers, two of which he spent deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During his time in service with the Rangers, Howie learned valuable lessons that would help carry him through the most imposing and monumental trials he would have to face.
As Howie lay in his hospital bed, he was gripped by an overwhelming series of emotions. Feelings of fear, anger, grief and loss weighed heavy on him for a time. Not one to dwell for long, he made the decision to refocus. “I had my team and my family, I knew what they expected of me and I knew what was expected of a Ranger. That meant I had to figure out how to keep moving forward and I readied myself for the long road ahead. You can't go back and change what's happened, all you can do is focus on the future and make the best of your situation.”
The first year of recovery and rehabilitation were the most difficult for Howie. “Some days were so difficult. It's hard not to ask why this had to happen. It was hard not to think about what I had lost and what I could no longer do,” he recalls. As a paraplegic he faced new challenges, many of which were daily tasks that seemed simple and routine before he was injured. “Everything is a new challenge. You have to learn how to live a completely new way. You have to learn a new way to sit up in bed, to get dressed, to get out of bed, to get around, to open doors, to drive, and the list goes on.”
Surrender is not a Ranger word
Feeling inundated by a seemingly endless deluge of challenges his change in lifestyle dictated, Howie found solace and motivation in stanzas of the Ranger Creed. “The Ranger Creed is something I memorized when I came into the Army. We repeated it daily, multiple times. My leaders forced me to know it inside and out and helped me understand that it wasn't just words on paper. It was an Oath that couldn't be broken and a way of life that once taken on, should never be cheated or forgotten. Part of that creed is, 'Surrender is not a Ranger word.' As Rangers, we never give up, no matter the circumstances, regardless of the odds.” Howie realizes there are things that are out of his control, but he's learned to embrace the idea. Howie explains, “There is no benefit to getting angry every time I run into a challenge because of my injury. I'll usually take a deep breath and remind myself there are worse situations I could be in, so I just need to figure out what I need to do to make the situation work.” He also has an alternate strategy, “And if that doesn't help, then I'll drop a bunch of F-bombs… I'm a Ranger, that always makes me feel better, then I'll figure it out.”
During his rehabilitation, Howie chose to focus his energy on training for paratriathlon competition. He also found that it made the transition to his new way of life easier. “No one can live a full and happy life without purpose. That purpose may not make sense to anyone else, but you have to have it. For me, it was racing again. I know a lot of people still don't understand how I ever got back on a bike. To me it made sense.”
No one can live a full and happy life without purpose
As Howie persisted through the arduous recovery process, he was introduced to several inspiring role models who have overcome their own injuries and gone on to become amazing athletes. Howie was put in touch with an incredibly driven Navy SEAL by the name of Carlos Moleda, a 53 year old paraplegic who is five-time Ironman World Champion, two-time National Handcycling Champion, four-time Hawaii Ironman Champion, and winner of the 367-mile Sadlers Ultra Challenge handcycle race. While rehabilitating in Chicago, Howie also met Melissa Stockwell. Melissa was the first female soldier to lose a limb during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She lost her left leg when a roadside bomb exploded while she led a convoy in Baghdad, Iraq. She was the first Iraq veteran chosen for the Paralympics and has won multiple championship titles. Melissa is also co-founder of the Paratriathlon team Dare2Tri. Howie has met countless athletes with varying types of illness and injuries and states, “…they continue to push me and motivate me to be the best I can be.”
Continuing his rehabilitation in Chicago, Howie began training with Dare2Tri. “They provided the resources and coaches to make it possible for me to start training for my first Paratriathlon. This was all during the same time I was learning to be independent and learning how to live my new regular life,” says Howie. With the help of Dare2Tri, he applied to race internationally with Team USA. An astonishing eight months after Howie was injured, he raced in San Diego wearing the Team USA uniform.
In the almost four years since Howie was injured, he's become a member of Dare2Tri's Elite Team and competes as a member of Team USA. For Team USA, he's competed abroad in Japan, Brazil, Australia, Spain, and Scotland. As an adaptive athlete he's racked up an impressive list of achievements including: 2014 Team USA Most Inspirational Comeback Award, 2nd place ITU Mannaus Brazil (his first podium finish at an ITU race), 3rd place 2015 Open Para World Championships, 2nd place 2016 Invictus Games Handcycle Time Trial, and 1st place at the 2016 Warrior Games Handcycle Road Race. Though Howie loves all disciplines of triathlon competition, his favorite event is cycling. “I probably favor the bike just because I love the freedom.” Howie explains, “Every time I get on my bike, any thoughts about what I've lost or what I've gone through slip away. I just ride.”
Every time I get on my bike, any thoughts about what I've lost or what I've gone through slip away. I just ride
During the 2016 Invictus Games, Howie had the chance to meet Prince Harry. “It was an honor to meet Prince Harry,” Howie says, “He is a leader who understands the sacrifices of service members. He's making sure that not only are we taken care of, but that no one forgets what we have given to maintain their freedoms.” In the military, there is a time-honored tradition known as the coin challenge. The challenger presents their unit's organizational coin. The person being challenged must immediately produce the coin for their organization. If the person being challenged fails to do so, he/she must buy a round of drinks for the challenger. Howie remembers, “When I met Prince Harry, I 'coined' him with Black Team's Skull and Crossbones coin… He owes me a beer.”
Prince Harry owes me a beer
From the outside looking in, Howie seems to crush any challenge that enters his path. He admits some days are worse than others though, “Some days are tough and sometimes I still grieve the loss of my legs. The trick is not letting those feelings take control. As they say in the Ranger community, 'I rub my Ranger Tab.' Sometimes that's metaphorically and sometimes that's literally. It reminds me that I need to continue to drive on.” Howie continues, “The biggest thing was and still is the fact that I'm a Ranger and a Golden Knight. We're the best of the best. People expect me to be steps above the average person. That means, when I'm faced with a challenge, I figure out a way to overcome it and I never give up.”
The challenges of military life put Howie in the frame of mind to constantly endeavor to be the best at everything he did. “That mentality didn't change after I was injured, I still strive for excellence at whatever I do.” He refers to the last stanza of the Ranger Creed, it reads, “Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the Ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.” Howie adds, “Being hurt didn't relieve me of my Oath to always move forward with my mission of leading a successful and full life.” In Howie's relentless pursuit of excellence, his next big goal is the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
In July 2015, I had the honor of being part of Howie's first skydive since he was injured. I asked him how it felt to get back in the air, “Honestly, it felt like I never stopped. I had my friends and teammates back and the wind in my face. It was emotional but in a happy way. Jumping again was kind of like saying, 'Nice try life, but you can't stop me.' "
Looking back, Howie says the accident has positively affected his life in many ways, “I think the biggest way it's enriched my life is through the people I've been fortunate enough to meet. People I probably would have never encountered before I was injured. Some of them are dealing with injuries and illnesses that seem overwhelming and yet they show up everyday and put in the work. Not just to get by, but to be athletes, champions, amazing husbands and wives, great parents, the types of people we all strive to be.”
Never give up – ever. Find what you need to motivate you.
To those overwhelmed in facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles of their own, Howie offers this advice, “Never give up… ever. Find what you need to motivate you. There's no, 'one size fits all,' recovery method after a traumatic change in your life, but there is a way. For me it was the idea that: I knew my teammates, friends and family expected me to tear down obstacles; I knew I was not going to allow myself to give up; I knew that others were dealing with similar, sometimes worse things than I was which made me realize I was also capable.”
Instead of lamenting over the past, on what could have been, Howie chooses to set his sights on the future, clearly discerning a new objective and directing all of his focus and energy towards it. Through blood, sweat and toil; through tragedy and triumph, Howie has become an inspiration, demonstrating the limitless capabilities of the human spirit and reminding us all that anything is possible if we just dare to try.