Our editor interviewed Jack Wallace after learning that they hail from neighboring hometowns. Jack plays for Team USA’s sled hockey team and won a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Paralympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. Sled hockey, also known as sledge hockey, is an adaptation of ice hockey. Players are seated on sleds and use special hockey sticks to help them navigate around the ice. Jack has also begun competing in sprint kayaking and paracanoe –sports in which he races on the water! Jack talked to The Hidden Opponent about his life before and after the accident and his subsequent road to a gold medal.
Tell us a bit about your youth, growing up, family life, playing sports, etc.
I grew up in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. I was the youngest of four children, all of which were very competitive athletes. I picked up hockey around the age of 3 by playing in the driveway with my older brother. Just like him, hockey was always my favorite sport. Continuing to follow in my brother’s footsteps, I ended up playing every sport that our town offered. I remember getting changed out of football equipment and getting into my hockey gear while in the trunk of my parents car because practices were regularly scheduled back to back. Similar to many other young kids, my whole life more or less revolved around sports.
If you’re comfortable, tell us a bit about your accident.
One of my favorite family traditions was our yearly trip to Lake George in NY. I have so many amazing memories on that lake, except for one. On July 3rd, 2008, I was ten years old and we were out waterskiing, just like any other day on the lake. I ended up getting hit by the propeller and severely injured my right leg. Luckily, we had a radio on board and we were able to contact a local marina, who called an ambulance. The ambulance took me to a field where I was helivaced to a trauma center. Upon arrival, the doctors amputated what was left of my right leg, just above the knee. I inexplicably had no other major injuries. I spent three days in a medically induced coma, then the following month in an ICU. I was eventually transferred to a children’s specialized hospital back in NJ and released in September.
Do you remember your initial reaction after the accident? How did you cope afterwards?
I was definitely in shock for a few days after waking up. I never really got to think of the implications of what had happened because of the pain I was in. I had shattered my femur but they could not put me in a cast due to the constant revision surgeries that had to be done to my injured leg. The main focus was just getting me out of bed as soon as possible so I could go home. That and pain management were the two main focuses. I take no credit for my mindset after the accident. Once the pain was under control and I could get out of bed, I just started looking at what was next. That was mainly due to my family –they constantly stayed positive with me and kept me looking forward rather than dwelling on what had happened.
When did you start playing sled hockey and how did you find the sport?
The following summer, in August 2009, I attended a camp for children and families dealing with limb loss, Camp No Limits. I actually still volunteer with this organization to this day. One of the mentors asked me if I had tried any adaptive sports yet. At this point, me and my family had just been introduced to this entire new world of dealing with a disability. I told him no, and he responded by asking me about my favorite sport. I replied hockey. He then went on to tell me all about sled hockey and I couldn’t hide my excitement. I found my dad immediately and told him. We then found a local team in NJ and I went to the first practice I could. I fell in love with the sport of hockey all over again.
Tell us a bit about your experience at the Olympics. What does being a Paralympian mean to you?
It was honestly all a blur and I regret not soaking it in more than I did. Being in the village with some of the most incredible athletes in the world is amazing enough. Then I had the opportunity to play on that stage. Being a paralympian was all I dreamed of after getting injured, so I think it served as a redemption of sorts for me. Competing in Pyeongchang and ultimately winning gold was like the last chapter of me truly overcoming my injury.
What’s it like playing on a team of such diverse backgrounds, stories, abilities?
It makes being on the team so much fun. The guys on the team are some of my closest friends and while we all come from different walks of life, we all have that commonality of not only being an adaptive athlete and competing at the highest level, but also of having a disability. I think it serves towards the chemistry of our team because we can all learn from each other in so many different ways.
What’s been the hardest part of your journey? What has been the best part despite the adversity?
I would say the most difficult part for me is being treated like a “disabled” athlete. Society is surely coming along to be more inclusive, but people sometimes put you in a different category when they find out you’re a “paralympian” versus an “olympian.” The best part has been growing up with this incredible chance to pursue my passion and travel the world while representing my country. It’s a truly humbling opportunity.
What athletes inspire you?
The athletes that inspire me are the ones that play for the love of the game. The ones that pour their heart and soul into a sport, even though there might not be a big paycheck at the end of the road. Even if that money and success does come, their drive and attitude never change.
What kind of coping mechanisms do you use when dealing with mental health or while getting yourself ready for a game?
Luckily for me, exercise works as a great outlet for me anytime when I’m not feeling myself. Training offers plenty of opportunities for me to find relief. Two other hobbies I have are cooking, as well as playing guitar. In both those cases, I find opportunities to learn new things, whether it be recipes or songs. Prior to hockey games, I have a pretty dialed in routine. It consists of coffee, my pregame playlist, some hand eye coordination drills, and a dynamic warm.
What are your plans / goals after graduating from TCNJ this spring?
I actually just moved to Tennessee to further pursue my career as an athlete. For the first time in my life, I have the chance to devote my undivided attention to my performance. I’m excited to see where it takes me.
What advice would you give to athletes or those who are differently abled?
My best two pieces of advice would be to never let anyone treat you like you are differently abled. Never settle for any lesser treatment from someone. The second would be to not be afraid to get creative with your training. No one can achieve greatness from a cookie cutter workout plan and that is especially true for an adaptive athlete.