On a placid summer morning last month, before the Virginia heat could hit them, a former U.S. Marine and his partner lifted their rowing scull into the glassy water of the Rivanna River, near Charlottesville.
"First thing I do is take these legs off," said Rob Jones, who like his rowing partner, Oksana Masters, is a double, above-the-knee amputee. They're the U.S. team for mixed-doubles rowing at the 2012 London Paralympics, which started Wednesday.
They sit, take off their legs on the dock, balance on their torsos, lift, twist and gently drop the boat in. Then they put on special rowing legs and start a grueling workout.
Masters was born with deformed legs, later amputated. She's been rowing since she was 13. But Jones is a newcomer to rowing. Just two years ago, he lost both legs to a bomb blast when he was in Afghanistan with the Marines. Recovering in the hospital, he immediately began thinking about sports.
"I wanted to compete," he said. "When I compete, I do it to win. I wanted to get as high up the ladder as I could, and I really don't think there's anything higher than the Paralympics. So I set my goals high and went after it."
Hundreds of troops have lost their limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan; now as veterans, they're making their mark at the Paralympics. They account for about 10 percent of the U.S. team in London this week. The Pentagon is driving new innovation in prosthetics with money and research; Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, led the U.S. delegation to the London Games this week.
The prominence of vets in the Paralympics now is also thanks to pioneers like Melissa Stockwell, who lost her leg to a bomb in Iraq in 2004. By 2008 she was swimming in the Beijing Paralympics; by 2010 she was winning para-triathlons.
"The Paralympic movement is all about getting the word out and letting people recognize that just because someone lost a limb in Iraq seven years ago, that we're not sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves," she says. "We're out there competing at this huge level."
That's what Stockwell tells newly injured veterans in speeches she gives around the country.
"Sports played a huge role in my recovery," she says, "just being able to prove to myself that I could still be active, and to be out there with able-bodied athletes who still have all their limbs, and be out there in the same pool, and really kind of showing the world what I was still capable of."
Stockwell isn't competing in London. She's the world champion in para-triathlon, which isn't an event at the Paralympics. It will be in 2016 thanks to Stockwell and others. She follows a long tradition of veterans in the Paralympic movement, says Charlie Huebner, of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
"The movement [wouldn't] exist without injured military personnel and veterans," Huebner says. "The movement is going home to London where it was founded post-World War II, using sport as rehabilitation for injured veterans and service members."
Then and now, the real goal is to get wounded veterans involved in sports so they can do things like play ball with their children back home. Heubner says the participation of hard-charging combat vets like Stockwell, or rower Rob Jones, is also raising the bar at the games.
Gold medal or no, vets like Jones say they feel like nothing is holding them back.
"Nobody's told me that I couldn't do something," he says. "I say I want to do something, and they're like all right, let's figure it out."
Jones and Masters row in their first race Friday.
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