There was a sled hockey camp in Buffalo. There was a big TV show in Los Angeles. Josh Sweeney had committed to coach at the camp when the call came to appear on the ESPYS.
“Congratulations, Josh,” the caller said. “You’ve been chosen to receive the inaugural Pat Tillman Award for Service.”
Sweeney served his country as a Marine sergeant in Afghanistan. He lost both legs when he stepped on a mine. He learned a new sport during rehab. He became an inspiration. In a span of 31 days, Sweeney won a gold medal at the Paralympics and a national championship with the Rampage Sled Hockey Team.
On the morning of the ESPYS, Sweeney flew out of Buffalo. He arrived in Los Angeles in time for the show. He gave a brief speech. The Nokia Theater erupted with cheers. With the crowd on its feet, Sweeney rolled his wheelchair off the stage and flew back to Buffalo that evening. There were dozens of campers counting on him the next day.
That’s the untold story of the ESPYS. The Marine and sled hockey star celebrated for service to country left an awards show to serve campers across the country.
“I was excited about going to the ESPYS and I was excited about going back to camp,” Sweeney says. “The kids, all disabled individuals, want to make it to the Paralympics. I want to help them achieve their dream.”
For the past five months, Sweeney, 27, has lived one of his own. On March 14, he led the Rampage Sled Hockey Team to its first national championship, recording three assists in a 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues. On April 15 in Sochi, Sweeney scored the lone goal in a 1-0 victory over Russia to win gold at the Paralympic Winter Games. On July 16, he received an ESPY. Days later, he was named captain of the USA Sled Hockey Team.
“Everything is going so good,” Sweeney says, “I’m just kind of, ‘wow.’”
That’s a good word to sum up the Josh Sweeney story. He’d prefer something a little more understated -- to fit his personality -- but nothing fits better than “wow.” He lost his legs in 2009 and married his sweetheart, Amber, in 2010. He went from rehab to sled hockey star almost that quickly. No lower limbs. No problem.
On the ice, he shines. In Sochi, Sweeney forced a turnover in the gold medal game. He gathered the loose puck in the second period and raced toward Russian goaltender Vladimir Kamantcev. Sweeney faked left and shot right, sending the puck over Kamantcev’s glove and under the crossbar.
From up in the stands, Rampage teammate Chris Leverkuhn captured the goal on his video camera. “I was freaking out,” Leverkuhn says.
Down below, Sweeney was not ready to celebrate. He scored at 9:28 in the second period. The Russians had ample time to come back. The U.S. refused to let them. “When I looked up at the scoreboard at the end of the game,” Sweeney says, “I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool.’”
At the National Sled Hockey Tournament, Sweeney led all scorers with 13 points, which included a hat trick in a 3-0 semifinal victory over Buffalo. He enjoyed beating St. Louis in the championship as much as the Russians.
The Blues had defeated the Rampage in the two previous championship games. “They have the best club hockey goalie in the world and one of the best defensemen in the world,” Sweeney says. “The fact we had worked for so many years and won was awesome.”
Josh and Amber recently moved to Oregon to be near her family. Once he arrived, the man could not help himself. After learning there was no sled hockey team in the area, Josh talked a group of locals into starting one.
That wasn’t enough. This weekend, he’s going to Seattle to coach a sled hockey team and help build the sport in the community. Serving is what he does best.