As of five months ago, Jason Sturm’s total knowledge of bobsledding amounted roughly to this: It’s in the Olympics every four years, and the sleds go fast.
Now Sturm is a worldchampion bobsledder. And the sudden success in his new sport is another giant step forward in promoting his message that amputees, or “adaptive athletes,” can thrive under physically challenging circumstances.
Sturm, 37, lost the lower part of his left leg while on an Army training exercise at Fort Drum, N.Y., in March 2002, when his unit was accidentally hit by two 105mm artillery shells fired by another unit. Two of Sturm’s fellow soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division were killed and 12 others were injured by shrapnel from shells powerful enough to destroy a tank. The shells had been mis-aimed and landed more than a mile off target.
Sturm, who describes himself as “a former fat kid” from his days at Fairfax’s Annandale High School, had worked hard to get in shape for the Army after high school and was determined to do so again. He was relocated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2003, received his first prosthesis and began training, though he thought the military was more focused on simply getting amputees prepared for basic civilian life than anything more strenuous.
“Just because you’re injured doesn’t mean you can’t do these things,” Sturm said he told himself and others. “You just have to rethink the way you do things. You need to change your mind-set.”
Tattooed on the inside of Sturm’s right forearm is a quote: “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears,” from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. “Whenever I’m bent over and sucking wind, I look at that,” Sturm said, “and I get going again.”
Though Sturm returned to the civilian workforce as a government contractor making a six-figure salary, he grew more interested in helping the burgeoning amputee population realize its athletic potential. At the CrossFit gym in Tysons Corner, he hooked up with owner David Wallach, who had developed a similar interest after meeting a Marine amputee and declaring that all severely wounded warriors could use his gym for $1 a month.
Now Sturm, a married father of two living in Herndon, has quit his contracting job and joined with Wallach full time in the Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance, a nonprofit group created by Wallach and dedicated to teaching amputees and their coaches the best methods for training and competing.
“Adaptive athletes raise the bar for everyone around them,” Wallach said. “It kind of removes your willingness” to complain “about the small problems of life.”
Sturm and Wallach found that there was no central place for amputees, as well as their therapists, coaches and doctors, to go for information on how to train for more than just everyday life. And as the number of amputees returning from Iraq and Afghanistan increased, Wallach said, “many facilities were like deer in the headlights when approached by an adaptive athlete.”
So in addition to creating the alliance and the Web site, Sturm and Wallach developed a seminar to teach trainers and therapists how to coach amputees to a higher level. For 2015, they thought they might get enough interest for five seminars.
Instead, they are scheduled for 15 seminars in this country and others. “If we can train another generation of coaches to do what we do,” Wallach said, “we can change thousands of lives.”
Then last September, as Sturm and Wallach began spreading the gospel of adaptive athletic training, a friend on Facebook mentioned to Sturm that a U.S. para-bobsledding team was looking for members. There was a push to launch a new World Cup circuit for para-bobsledding and para-skeleton, with hopes of getting both events into the 2018 Winter Paralympics.
Sturm quickly headed to Calgary, Alberta, and began to learn about bobsledding during two weeks of training. While there, he teamed with British bilateral amputee Corie Mapp, serving as the pusher and brakeman while Mapp was the driver. The two prepared to compete together in the first two para-bobsled events of the first World Cup, in Igls, Austria, and St. Moritz, Switzerland.
But when they arrived in Europe last month, the local organizers had other ideas. They wanted to race only one-man bobsleds, with separate categories for ambulatory (self-launched) and seated drivers, because the organizers thought “monobobs” would have an easier time gaining acceptance into the Paralympics, Sturm said.
Now Sturm, with no training as a driver, would drive his own sled. There were not enough ambulatory racers, so only the seated category was held, with the sleds simply dropped out of a starting gate rather than pushed.
“I’d never driven before,” Sturm said. On his first qualifying run in Austria, “I crashed,” he said. Crashed badly enough that “they had to fix the sled.” But in his second run, he qualified for the race, and in the race itself, Sturm finished second behind Mapp.
Next, the group moved to St. Moritz, and Sturm said he got five days of practice runs in on a course carved out of snow and ice rather than a prefabricated base. When the race was held Jan. 31, Sturm’s combined time over two heats was 0.04 seconds faster than a Latvian racer’s, giving him the St. Moritz gold.
And his second- and first-place finishes in the two races made him the inaugural para-bobsled World Cup champion.
“It was almost too much to take in,” Sturm said. “I showed up having never driven a bobsled. Nobody thought I would end up on the podium. I was just floored.”
David Kurtz, a longtime international bobsledding official and now the para-sport’s event director in North America, said Sturm first turned heads in Calgary while pushing the two-man sled with Mapp and generating times close to those of the non-para-bobsled teams. Then he competed in Europe with “no driving experience whatsoever.”
“It’s amazing how Jason adjusted to all that,” Kurtz said. “He helped the other athletes, not only with the physical, but the mental side. Jason has just been a great ambassador for the sport.”