Sled hockey Paralympian returns to Winter Games
Rico Roman had the puck on his stick and could have driven to the net.
But with the seconds ticking away in the gold medal sled hockey game at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games, Roman had a better idea.
"I could have gone to the net, but I just took it to the corner," the Portland native said. "That was the longest eight seconds of my life, and when the buzzer went off I was just so thrilled."
That 1-0 win over the 2014 Paralympic host Russians gave the United States its fourth medal and third gold in sled hockey.
Roman hopes to experience a similar thrill this season. A forward for Team USA, the 37-year-old will play in his second Paralympic Winter Games beginning with a preliminary round game on Saturday evening Portland time.
The Paralympic Winter Games are Thursday through March 19 at the same South Korean venues as the recent Olympic Winter Games.
"I'm honored to be a part of this team, and we will give it all we've got," Roman says.
Growing up in North Portland, Roman played basketball, football, soccer and wrestled a bit. Hockey was not on his radar.
He entered the Army after high school, inspired by uncles who served in the armed forces. In February 2007, while serving in Iraq as a staff sergeant in his ninth year in the U.S. Army, a roadside bomb left him severely wounded, including significant injuries to both legs.
His recovery involved a year at Walter Reed Army Medical Center near Washington, D.C., and then a stint at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. While there, he had his left leg amputated below the knee.
He made that decision after watching and speaking with other soldiers who had gone through amputations.
"I just wanted a better quality of life," Roman says. "I was on prescribed pain pills and having to use a cane and in a lot of pain.
"I'm just so blessed that I didn't have any other complications."
While in San Antonio, Roman started playing wheelchair basketball and handcycling through a program called Operation Comfort. When a sled hockey player suggested he give that sport a try, Roman was reluctant. He knew basketball from his youth but had no experience with hockey.
The first time he saw the sport was the first time he played it.
"It was the team aspect of it that really got me hooked. It was so much fun," he says.
About a year after discovering the sport, Roman tried out for the 2010 Paralympic team. He didn't make it, but went away highly motivated.
"It's what lit a fire for me to want to be a part of that team — and I made the team the following year," he says.
Roman is a physical forward and faceoff man for Team USA.
"Winning faceoffs and getting big hits and going out there and grinding and helping my team win any way we can," he says of his role.
He credits teammates such as Luke McDermott, Declan Farmer, Brody Roybal and Kevin McKee for sharpening his faceoff skills.
Roman credits his family, including wife Ela, for helping him through the lengthy recovery process following his injuries.
"It was tough being injured and having to rehab — a lot of work and a lot of strain on my family," he says. "Through it all, knowing they were so supportive of me really gave me the drive to want to get out of bed and to get better."
Sharing the 2014 gold medal moments with his family is a special memory he will strive to repeat in PyeongChang. Ela and their teenage children, Juliet and Raul, will be in South Korea, as will Rico's mother.
Missing due to sanctions imposed by the International Olympic Committee will be the Russian team the U.S. beat for the 2014 gold. But Korea and Canadian teams should provide plenty of competition.
Roman is one of 10 players who were 2014 gold medalist. Several of them also played on the 2010 gold medal winning team.Their experience should help younger players, he says, noting that the best approach is to stay relaxed "and focus on enjoying it and take it all in."
He is looking forward to the Paralympic experience, the intensity of the games and the electricity in the crowd.
At Sochi four years ago, Roman "was blown away at having over 7,000 people there cheering at the top of their lungs. To me, there's nothing that can explain how full of energy that stadium was and how every time Russia touched the puck in that gold medal match the crowd just erupted. It was something unreal, and I'll never forget it."
When he is done making more memories in South Korea, Roman plans to return to Portland. He moved back to his childhood hometown in December and is looking forward to establishing new roots here.
He plans to get involved with adaptive sports in the region. In addition to assisting with a local sled hockey program, Roman plans to continue playing another sport he loves, wheelchair basketball.