Miami-Dade County

From war to the Paralympics, a story of incredible courage

Helman Román, a National Guard veteran wounded in Afghanistan, rests during a training session in Miami Beach.
Helman Román, a National Guard veteran wounded in Afghanistan, rests during a training session in Miami Beach.

Seven years ago Helman Román’s life changed forever. The Colombian immigrant was on a military mission in Afghanistan when an improvised explosive device went off under the patrol vehicle he was commanding.

Román, who was serving as staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, had made the decision to join the military after 9/11.

For Román, serving his country was not only a dream but a duty.

In the blink of an eye, that dream was cut short, at least temporarily. On the eighth anniversary of 9/11, on Sept. 11 of 2009, an IED exploded right below Román’s armored vehicle, causing severe injuries to both legs, from the knees down.

“They had to rebuild almost everything. I was in the hospital for almost two years,” Román said.

For his sacrifice and courage, Román was awarded the Purple Heart in 2010.

In 2012, after three complicated surgeries and ten grueling months of rehabilitation at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C., Román retired from the army.

Thanks to medical advances Román did not lose his legs or the ability to walk, but the incident has considerably limited his functioning.

“I was in a wheelchair for a year. And after the wheelchair, trying to walk again. I walk, but with a lot of pain. I cannot stand for too long,” he says.

Román says that disability is not an impediment to success. The key, he says, is not to stay at home and to learn to perform daily activities in a different way.

“With the desire to do things I believe obstacles disappear,” he says. “I know it is not easy for many people, but great things can be achieved. Nothing is impossible in this life.”

A second opportunity

At age 47, and despite his disability, the veteran has found another chance to fulfill his dream of serving his country, this time as an athlete.

“When I was in the hospital I started doing rehabilitation with handcycle training. That was how I got into adaptive sports and a year and a half ago I met a friend who did rowing,” he says.

Román's friend was Jacqui Kapinowski, an athlete who competed in the 2010 Winter Paralympics helping Team USA finish fourth place in wheelchair racing.

After being introduced to rowing in November 2014, Román fell in love with the sport: “I love this sport because it is very difficult and very physical.”

Today, Román is part of the adaptive rowing program at the Miami Beach Rowing Club, the first rowing club in Florida to receive the designation of Paralympic Sport Club from the United States Olympic Committee.

The free rowing program began in 2014 with private donations, a small group of coaches and volunteer help. It is open to people with all types of disabilities, and since August of last year is led by coach Stephanie Parrish, who has managed to take the program in a more competitive direction.

Parrish feels that Román’s story can encourage other people with disabilities to join the program.

“I feel humbled to work with Helman. He is an excellent worker who impresses me every day with his desire to push the limits further and further and accept any challenge I throw at him, always with a good attitude,” she said.

Last month, Román and his teammate, Lorah Goodkind, earned the opportunity to go to the USRowing Para-rowing camp.

USRowing is a nonprofit organization recognized by the U.S. Olympic Committee as the national governing body for the sport of rowing. It selects, trains and manages the teams representing the U.S. in international competitions, including world championships, the Pan American Games and the Olympics.

Román stood out in this camp as one of the favorites to enter the 2016 USRowing Non-Qualified Paralympic Trials in West Windsor, N.J., on Wednesday.

There he and Goodkind demonstrated they have what it takes to represent the U.S. at the Final Paralympic Qualification Regatta in Gavirate, Italy, on April 20, where teams participating in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will be selected.

With the oars and the power in his hands, Román feels ready to once again make America proud.

“In my case, as a veteran of the United States, participating in the Paralympics would be a second chance for me to continue providing service to this country that has given me everything. It has been the main reason I am who I am today.”

Follow Ingrid on Twitter: @IngridYHoyos

Related stories from Miami Herald