LEWISTON — Christy Gardner wonders if the VA doctors who once told her all of the things she wouldn’t do could see her now, what would they say?

If they could see her glide across the ice on her sled, stick-handle, or knock an opponent off the puck with a hip check. If they could have seen the three cracked ribs and the multiple bruises she’s received dishing out and taking hits on unforgiving sheets of ice. If they could see her in June, being honored by USA Hockey.

Gardner has been named USA Hockey’s 2013 Disabled Athlete of the Year. A member of the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team, the 31-year-old Lewiston resident will be honored June 5 at USA Hockey’s annual awards night in Colorado Springs, Colo.

She is the second woman to receive the award since its inception in 2005. Her teammate, Erica Mitchell, was the first in 2007.

“I’m still kind of surprised, or in shock, however you want to put it,” said Gardner, who received the news on Monday night.

Gardner joined the U.S. Women’s team two-and-a-half years ago. A standout athlete at Edward Little and Long Island University’s C.W. Post campus, she now splits her time with the USA Warriors, a team for veterans wounded in action, in addition to the national team.

J.J. O’Connor, chairman of the disabled section of USA Hockey, said Gardner was selected from hockey players representing the organization’s four disciplines for disabled players — sled, special (for the physically and developmentally disabled), deaf/hearing impaired and standing amputee/warrior divisions. The award is presented annually to the player who best displays perseverance and dedication in overcoming obstacles on and off the ice.

“It’s not necessarily the best player, but somebody who has been the best overall contributor to the sport of disabled hockey,” O’Connor said. “Christy is somewhat new to the sport, but you can’t help but notice her, how energetic she is, and how she overcomes adversity.”

Gardner was an Army MP when she was injured in an accident while stationed in Korea in 2006. In the line of duty, she took a direct hit in the forehead which damaged her frontal and temporal lobes.

Medically retired from the Army, suffering grand mal seizures and undergoing intense rehab to learn to walk, talk and complete simple tasks, the former standout athlete at Edward Little and C.W. Post received what she says was the most devastating news of all: Doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to play sports again.

But when a fellow veteran exposed her to a variety of adaptive sports through the Boston VA Healthcare System, Gardner took an immediate shine to sled hockey. She quickly knew it was the sport for her, even though her first spin on the ice didn’t go very well.

“I spent 20 minutes on the ice and just about all of it on my elbows,” Gardner said.

Thanks to a sponsorship from the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, Gardner was able to improve her sledding and hockey skills. The rules of sled hockey are the same as “stand-up” hockey, although players sit on an adaptive device known as a sled. Players use two shortened hockey sticks with a blade on one end and metal picks for propulsion on the other end.

After just six months on a sled, Gardner took part in an open tryout in New Jersey and made the national team on her first try in 2011. The team competes year-round against national and international competition and Gardner, a forward, spends one weekend a month playing with the team and one weekend a month playing for the recently-formed Warriors.

Members of the national team, who range in age from 15-60, have taken Gardner under their wing, helping her improve her skills. The team is only about four years old, but many have been playing for a long time, and even though Gardner is one of the few with fully functional legs, the sled is a great equalizer.

Gardner’s speed and strength have improved markedly in her time with the women. Gardner, in turn, has taken to mentoring the Warriors, all recent amputees, and putting her coaching skills (she was varsity girls’ lacrosse coach at Lewiston High School for five years) to good use.

“I give them the same advice the women’s team gave me,” she said. “The really fun thing about working with them is they are in active rehab, so they will be on the ice two or three days a week while I’m away. It’s phenomenal to go back (to their headquarters near Baltimore) and see how much they’ve improved from their first time.”

Among the other highlights in her brief career was the opportunity to play in front of family and friends when the national team played against a University of New Hampshire-based sled hockey team at the Colisee in 2012. Last weekend, she played against the Warriors in West Chester, Pa. and took a few barbs, and at least one check that produced a noticeable bruise, from her part-time teammates.

“I’ve had a few injuries in my two years, but I don’t regret anything at all,” Gardner said.

Accompanied by her seizure alert dog, golden retriever Moxie, Gardner said she’s “been able to do more cool stuff since I got hurt than before I got hurt,” such as surfing, water skiing, snowboarding and, most recently, wheelchair lacrosse. 

As much as those adventures and her hockey career have meant to her, Gardner is hoping they serve to inspire others, especially disabled children.

As for the recognition from USA Hockey, she thinks it could mean even more to her supportive family than her.

“I think my injuries have been tougher for them to understand than me,” she said. “I think for them to be able to see the labels that I have aren’t so devastating, that I’m still able to do stuff and live life, is very important.”


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