LEWISTON — Last week, Christy Gardner flew home from a track competition in Italy and filmed an episode dedicated to veterans for the “Rachael Ray Show.”
On Thursday, in front of a full chamber of commerce breakfast crowd, Gardner, at times funny, self-deprecating and poignant, described her injuries, amputated fingers and legs, and how they haven’t stopped her.
She captains the New England Warriors sled hockey team, plays on the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team and has a goal of running a marathon.
“There are so many times in your life where you’re told you can’t and so you need that role model to say, ‘Why not? Go for it,'” Gardner, 36, said. “For myself, it was more like, ‘What’s the worst that could happen? I’ll still be in a wheelchair.'”
Gardner, a 2000 graduate of Edward Little High School in Auburn and a standout athlete, said she was injured overseas during an Army peacekeeping mission in a “hazard zone” (different from a war zone), in 2006.
“I fractured my skull in two places, my cheeks, my jaw, my nose and then in the (evacuation) process, they tried to do a lumbar compression,” Gardner said. “They put a hole in my spine to drain some of the pressure in my head. Unfortunately, I started seizing and they dropped me with a needle in my back, so I actually became paralyzed below the knees.”
It led to a long, painful recovery and, eventually, fighting to have both legs amputated.
“The first few years were horrible,” she said. “If I didn’t have Moxie (her trained service and seizure dog), I wouldn’t be here today. When it came to planning suicide, I couldn’t figure out what to do with her. She’s literally the only reason I’m here, but because of that, I’m now able to find out what I’m able to do.”
While going through physical therapy, a friend hounded her to try water-skiing with adaptive skis. Gardner said she was hesitant — doctors said she’d never walk, run, ride a bike — but eventually gave it a shot. She hadn’t realized there were so many adaptive avenues to compete in sports.
After that, “One by one, we knocked off everything the doctor said I would never do,” she said.
She’s now a professional athlete, paid $700 a month. “It’s crazy but it’s a heck of a way to see the country,” she said.
Gardner would like to see more awareness and support for people with disabilities as well as an adaptive track program locally.
The New England Warriors will play two games Saturday at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn.
The “Rachael Ray Show” episode airs at 11 a.m. Friday
“Moxie got to eat all her food,” Gardner said of Ray. “She’s actually a super down-to-earth, normal nice person. She could have been a Mainer except for the accent.”
Gardner’s talk ended with a standing ovation at the Ramada Inn by members of the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. The Franco American Veterans Color Guard Post 31 of Lewiston and Maine Music Society, performing the national anthem, opened the breakfast, also to loud applause.
Christy Gardner, left, stands with Laurie Sidelinger and Christy’s dog, Moxie, at the Lewiston Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast Thursday at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston. “She’s just an inspiration,” Sidelinger said. (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal)