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Marine Corps adaptive sports allow athletes another shot at glory

Dorian Gardner was a Marine Corps sergeant serving in Afghanistan in 2010 when an improvised explosive device took his left eye and left him legally blind.

After being evacuated from Delaram, Afghanistan, he was assigned to Wounded Warrior Regiment in Hawaii and, once recovered, he opted to stay in the Marine Corps. The tall, athletic Marine had been a stand out basketball player among his peers before his injury but, with his visual impairment, the game he loved was out of reach. He said he didn't think he'd compete again.

"I gave that up, you know, there's not much room for basketball ... when your depth perception is gone," Gardner said.


After his injury, Gardner said, a lot of people told him to take a medical retirement and leave the Marine Corps. But, he said, he had set goals for himself in the Marines and wasn't going to let a disability get in his way.

"The Marine Corps is — day in and day out — a tough go," Gardner said, "but doing it with limited vision and having to be very reliant on others for aid, day to day, made things a bit tougher. But I was determined to prove to myself and everybody who doubted me that I could still do this job — that I could still be a Marine.”

Now a master sergeant assigned to Camp Pendleton, Gardner is not just back to competing — he's winning medals.

Gardner is among the veterans and active duty Marines competing in the Marine Corps Trials, an annual competition hosted by the Corps' Wounded Warrior Regiment. Trials were held at Camp Pendleton last week and Gardner competed in several events, including wheelchair rugby.

The game is played on a basketball court, and competitors wheeled themselves up and down it in specially-designed chairs built to take a beating — or, to dish them out. Rugby is a notoriously rough sport and, Gardner said, the game on wheels is no different.


"It's still a pretty rough sport even in the wheelchair," Gardner said. "The chairs are designed specifically to take impact. There's defensive chairs (and) there's offensive chairs."

Wheelchair rugby is played by people with various disabilities, not just the ones that affect their ability to walk or run.

Daniel Norman, a retired Marine who lives in Utah, loves the sport. Norman is a veteran of the trials and previously competed at national and international adaptive sports competitions.

Norman said that despite any disabilities, the competitors don't go easy on one another.

"We're Marines — we're competitive by nature," Norman said. "We want to win. They're all my friends (and) I love them to death, but when they're on an opposite team, we go ham. We go hard."

Gardner began competing in 2017 and said adaptive sports showed him what he is still capable of.

"I discovered that there are still so many things I can do," Gardner said. "After thinking to myself, 'life is over,' adaptive sports really opened my eyes and showed me there are so many things I could still do, regardless of my injury."

Gardner, who is nearing his 20-year mark in the Marines, is getting ready to retire. But, he says, his athletic pursuits are just beginning.

"I’m going to be packing it up and retiring after 20 years but that's when the training’s gonna start," he said.

Gardner has a new goal — to compete in the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris.

Competitors who qualify from last week's trials will be invited to the national Warrior Games where they'll compete against adaptive athletes from the other service branches. From there, it's on to the Invictus Games, an international competition among wounded service members and veteran athletes.

At the trials, Gardner won gold in shot put and archery. Norman took gold in the 100 meters, power lifting, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby.

The Marines have not yet announced which athletes from the trials will be invited to the Warrior Games.

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