COLORADO SPRINGS, CO - Jen Lee might be best known for his Paralympic accomplishments in sled hockey, but it was wheelchair basketball that paved the way. Lee was first introduced to adaptive sports during his rehab at the Center for the Intrepid at the Brooke Army Medical Center. Having played able-bodied basketball in high school and the years after, he naturally gravitated towards trying wheelchair basketball first.
However, it was not an easy adjustment for him. “When I couldn’t play regular basketball anymore it was very, I guess you could say depressing. It gave me a lot of doubts if I could play any sports,” said Lee.
Lee had to adjust to the fact that the wheelchair was his legs and to technicalities like changing the arc in his shot because he sat lower to the hoop in a wheelchair. He first began playing during rehab and for military teams, and then he learned about the NWBA’s team the San Antonio Wheelchair Spurs.
“I was excited, I was told there was also half the guys who are going through rehab, have been there longer than I have now, and are still continuing playing. And there was actually some veterans on the team. So it was actually a very competitive team.”
Although much of Lee’s life is involved in adaptive and Paralympic sports, that was not always the case. Lee grew up in San Francisco, California involved in able-bodied sports and had military-driven aspirations.
“Growing up I always wanted to become a solider or join the military. I played with GI Joe and watched a lot of different movies that talked about previous wars and the history of our country,” he said.
The military was never a serious consideration for Lee until September 11. “It was my sophomore year of high school and it kind of really felt like for the first time the country really coming together without political biases or opinions...It made me realize I want to do something to play my role”
It was in 2004, just barely a high school graduate, that Lee enlisted in the Army as a Crew Chief Mechanic. His job was to ensure all the birds were up in the air without any issues and to drop off supplies to bases. A couple years later, Lee was shipped out to Kirkuk, Iraq for his first and only deployment.
He described the first few months to be difficult. “There was still a lot of things going on politically. We were still trying to find Saddam Hussein, but at the same time captured and killed both of his sons so there was a lot of stuff going on as far as action,” he said.
Despite the dangers in Iraq, it was the danger of Interstate 95 that changed his life forever. In 2009, Lee was driving back to his base in Savannah, Georgia with four other Sergeants when he found himself “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” He was side-swiped by a car and ejected off his motorcycle.
A young man of just 22 years old, Lee was forced to medically retire from the service. He had had his left leg amputated above the knee, but that did not stop him from fighting to stay in the Army. A program called Army World Class Athlete Program (WCAP) played a significant role in his pursuit to continue in the service. WCAP was looking for Paralympic athletes and Lee had been selected for sled hockey.
“They [WCAP] realized that the Paralympics is something that can give combat wounded soldiers or injured service members another purpose,” Lee said.
Lee was able to continue active duty for another three years after he finished rehab. He left the Army in January of 2015, having served for 11 years. He received numerous medals for his service: Army commendation medal, global war on terrorism, Iraq campaign medal, army achievement medal, and Distinguished Service Medal. He also won two Paralympic gold medals and two World Championship gold medals with the U.S. Sled Hockey Team, which he has been a member of for seven seasons.
Although wheelchair basketball isn’t the sport he chose to pursue on the Paralympic level, he still continues to play with the Spurs. He appreciates and thanks everyone involved in the program as wheelchair basketball was a turning point in his life. Lee said, “It gave me the spark to want to compete again.”
Thank you Veterans
The NWBA would like to thank all Veterans for their service. We appreciate our Veteran members telling their stories and for becoming involved in our sport, regardless of their story.