Joel Hunt's hero Peyton Manning once told him, "Just play well, and the scoreboard will speak for itself." Denver's Hunt has done just that: After three Iraq deployments that left him with post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury and a paralyzed left leg, he got on skis for first time in 2008 and devoted himself to ski racing. Now, the scoreboard's spoken: He's been nominated for the 2014 U.S. Paralympic Alpine Ski Team, meaning he'll be in Sochi next month as the first-ever Paralympic skier with a TBI.
No one imagined such a scenario when Hunt left the army in 2007 -- confined to a wheelchair, battling severe physical and mental trauma, taking fifteen meds a day and reeling from a failed marriage that left him living with his parents. To illustrate just how far Hunt has come, here's a video Sean Cronin and I produced on Hunt in March 2008, as part of a story on Andrew Pogany, a former Special Forces soldier turned veterans advocate. At the time, Hunt seemed to exemplify an endless parade of struggling veterans advocates like Pogany were working with, although Hunt's predicament seemed far more dire than most.
Later that year, however, Hunt got on skis. And it changed everything.
"For the first time, I was good at something," he says of that moment.
He really was good: Soon, he was ranked among the best in the country among skiers with disabilities in giant slalom, gaining a sponsorship with the Japan-based Ogasaka Ski Company and training with the Paralympic Alpine Development Program in Aspen.
While his leg is still paralyzed, these days Joel gets around with just the help of his service dog, Barrett, who waits for Joel at every finish line and shares a hotel bed with him when he's on the road. With his meds down to two pills a day, he no longer lives with his parents, and he got remarried in 2011. When he's not skiing, Joel works as a soldier's advocate himself, telling his story at events, volunteering at schools, organizing veterans excursions like a skydiving trip that made headlines on CNN.
Joel's tale is more than a simple story of recovery. To get where he is today, he's become his own 24-7 personal advocate, lobbying one veterans organization after another to help fund his dream and pulling strings to ensure that he'd receive his Purple Heart before his mom, who was dying of cancer, passed away in October 2012.
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Yes, Joel still struggles with PTSD, still struggles with nightmares of Iraq, but he's become a man on a mission. As he puts it, he's out to demonstrate "that if a regular guy like me can make it, anybody can make it." To do so, he says won't stop until he's "the best skier in the world."
Now, with the Paralympic ski team nomination he's been dreaming of for years, he seems very close to that goal. Until the United States Olympic Committee approves the nominations later this month, Hunt can't officially be called a Paralympic skier. But that's essentially a formality; Hunt is packing his bags for Sochi, Russia, where the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games will be held after the Winter Olympics, from March 7-16.
"As I sit here and cry, trying to hold it together, I have finally made my mom's dream come true," Hunt wrote on his Facebook page when he learned of his nomination earlier this week. But it's more than just his mother's dream that he made come true by transforming himself from a broken soldier who nearly everyone had written off into a champion who'll be representing America on a global stage. He's become an inspiration for struggling veterans everywhere. These days, Hunt doesn't need to look to folks like Manning for inspiration. He's a hero himself.
More from our Videos archive circa March 2013: "Video: Joel Hunt, vet-turned-Paralympic hopeful, during pre-skiing slump."