People - Pushing Pain Away

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News January 2018

After serving 19 years and four months in the Army, the 41-year-old managed to survive injuries to his elbow, shoulder, chest, spine, abdomen, hands, hips, knees and jaw and being hit by a mortar round during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

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There aren’t many places on his body where Isaac “Malik” Rios Jr., doesn’t feel pain. After serving 19 years and four months in the Army, the 41-year-old managed to survive injuries to his elbow, shoulder, chest, spine, abdomen, hands, hips, knees and jaw and being hit by a mortar round during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Rios has also struggled to deal with a traumatic brain injury and somehow persevered through bouts of depression. He’s managed to push himself out of isolation. And now he’s finally putting his life back together again — with adaptive sports serving as the main catalyst. After helping the U.S. earn its third straight gold medal in wheelchair basketball to close out the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto last October, Rios acknowledges it’s adaptive sports, along with events like the Warrior and Invictus Games, that saved him.

“Oh man, this thing was amazing,” says Rios, who served as an infantryman before retiring from the Army in January 2017. “What you guys don’t realize, this is not just an Invictus Games, this is a life-saving tool for, at least for the veterans that I know, ’cause people don’t realize how much of a fight it is to actually survive after you go from being this super soldier to being a person that needs help doing everything. And you fight it, but you don’t know how to maneuver through something that you’ve never been in before.”

Invictus Memories

That’s what England’s Prince Harry hoped the Games would do for wounded, ill and injured servicemen and servicewomen, both active duty and veteran members, when he created the international sporting event in 2014. More than 550 athletes from 17 countries competed in last year’s Games, participating in 12 sports. A Brooklyn, N.Y., resident, Rios finished with five total medals — winning individual gold in the men’s IF7 shot put with a 9.59-meter (31.46-foot) throw and team gold in wheelchair basketball, as well as earning silver in the men’s IF7 discus (22.42 meters, or 73.56 feet) and in the men’s ISA 50-meter breaststroke (1 minute, 12.97 seconds) and 50-meter backstroke (1:33.90) in swimming. But of all his Invictus Games memories, Rios’ favorite moment came when he met former U.S. President Barack Obama, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, along with Prince Harry, all at the same time after a wheelchair basketball semifinal game. They came down from the stands, talked to Rios and his teammates and hugged them. Later, Prince Harry and Obama even smack-talked with each other. 

“To be able to actually experience that, for a former president and vice president of my country to actually take time to care enough to come here and support us, you can’t ask for much more than that,” Rios says. 

Tough Road

With adaptive sports, Rios found and met other military veterans who are in the same boat, adjusting to their injuries and trying to live their lives, albeit in a new manner. That’s such a turnaround from where he was more than a year ago. Newly injured and still recovering from his military injuries, Rios isolated himself. He didn’t want anyone around or to talk to much of his family or friends. 

“Like, for me, my kids, never, the whole time I was in the hospital, I never allowed my kids to see me. I never allowed anyone in my family to ever see me hurt. So, you know, you keep it bottled in because I don’t know what it’s going to do to my kids,” Rios says. “So, when they finally saw me come home in a chair, it was kind of like, ‘What happened?’ You know, I made up a story. But I never wanted them to have to experience the fact that, you know, Dad was in the hospital or for them to see me bleeding. It would’ve been hard for me to have somebody help me, and I don’t know who you are. Like, I didn’t recognize them.”

Rios wouldn’t have found adaptive sports had it not been for a fellow soldier and friend who mentioned them to him during his recovery at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord Warrior Transition Battalion at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington. Adaptive sports gave him goals to reach, activities to pursue and people to talk to about life and its struggles. 

Rios is even thinking about working to keep the adaptive sports movement going. 

“Ever since I started doing the sports, this is what I want to do,” Rios says. “I live in New York, so there’s not a lot of adaptive sports. So I’m working on trying to build a program so I can start pulling people into it.” 


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People - Pushing Pain Away


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