Commentary

How sports lifted Sgt. Ivan Sears, U.S. Invictus Games co-captain

Updated: September 26, 2017, 10:51 AM ET
By Steve Wulf

Life is good for Sgt. Ivan Sears. This year alone, he was named a co-captain of the United States team for the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto, he married Sarah Wallace and he welcomed Ellie Rose Sears to the world. And now he's making his very first visit to Canada to compete in -- let's see -- the 100 meters, the 200 meters, the 400 meters and the 1,500 meters in wheelchair racing, as well as rowing and rugby.

"I just love to compete," he says.

Almost exactly seven years ago, Sears nearly lost his life when he stepped on an improvised explosive device while serving with the Marines in Marjah, Afghanistan. As he would later write, "At that moment, time froze and I saw dirt fly up and felt myself flying up in the air. Finally landing in the hole that was made from the explosion, I lost my legs right away. From there, my friends pulled me out of the hole and helped stop the bleeding. ... Fifteen minutes later, the bird came."

The helicopter flew him to a nearby hospital, and five days later he was back in the States for treatment of his wounds and rehabilitation -- he had also suffered two broken hips, hearing loss and hand injuries. Meanwhile, back in Albuquerque, New Mexico, his family was devastated.

"I was in the Marines for 21 years," says his father, Robert, now a deputy sheriff in Bernalillo County. "Retired as a gunnery sergeant. We're a military family going back to my great-grandfather. We know the dangers. But this news hit us hard, real hard."

There's a YouTube clip from a local news show of Ivan's homecoming a few months later -- 3,000 people came to the Albuquerque airport to greet him when he interrupted his rehab in San Antonio, Texas, to attend his sister's bat mitzvah. Still learning to walk on his prosthetic legs, he looked frail and overwhelmed. When asked his thoughts by a TV reporter, he replied, "Amazing."

But the really amazing part was still to come. As so often happens with wounded warriors, Sears had to come to grips with his new reality. "A chaplain friend had warned me," says his father. "He said, 'Thoughts of suicide aren't an if. They're a when.'"

As Ivan admits, "I was in a dark place at one point. ... I didn't want to leave my room or do anything, just stay there, watch TV and be lazy."

He hadn't been much of an athlete in high school. "JROTC was Ivan's sport," says his father. "He wanted to be a Marine ever since he was a boy."

Ivan joined the Corps in October of 2008 at age 18. After boot camp, infantry training and a spell at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. He took shrapnel in his leg and forearm in September of that year but soon returned to his unit. Then on Oct. 7, he stepped on the IED.

One thing about the Marine Corps is you're always surrounded by people who care about you. Just as friends pulled Ivan out of that hole in Marjah, other wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, encouraged him to get out into the world and give sports a try. "I was given a choice," says Ivan. "Stay in grief, or get over it. I was given a sense of purpose."

He was introduced to rowing first, and then to wheelchair racing. By 2012, he was racing in competitions. At the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs in 2014, he won his first gold medal in the 1,500 meters. "That first one felt so great," says Ivan. "I wanted more."

Courtesy Ivan SearsSgt. Ivan Sears will be competing at the 2017 Invictus Games in wheelchair racing, rowing and rugby.

Sears has stayed in the Marines and now works with the families of wounded warriors at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. And he's snagged more gold medals. At the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida, he won four wheelchair races: the 100, 200, 400 and 1,500.

If you watch wheelchair racing at this high level, you're struck not only by the hand and arm strength of the competitors, but also by their aerodynamic stillness and tactical intelligence. You'll also find yourself in awe of the engineering and maintenance it must take to make those chairs fly around the track. "Just like a car, you have to worry about the tires and the rims," says Ivan. "Gloves are important, too."

In order to maintain his own body, Ivan works out religiously: cardio, weights, exercises to strengthen his core. He has his duties as a sergeant and new responsibilities as a husband and father, but "somehow I find the time."

His father and sister Natasha will be in Toronto to see him compete and keep the other members of his devoted family apprised of how he does.

"I am so proud of him," says Robert. "He got through the darkness, and he is representing his country and the Marines. Maybe not in the way we all first envisioned when we joined the Marines, but in a way that shows people the meaning of patriotism. It's not just him I'm proud of, either. It's all the wounded warriors.

"When we old Marines get together, you often hear about how much tougher we were than these young guys. That's baloney. The moral compass of Ivan's generation is as true as ours. Their courage is as strong as ours. You see that at the Invictus Games."

Once upon a time, a skinny, overwhelmed kid came home to figure out what he was going to do with the rest of his life without his legs. When you look at Ivan Sears now, a confident, strapping athlete, Marine and family man, you realize the power of sports.

"They saved me," he says.

As his father says, "We got our son back -- and a baby granddaughter."

Steve Wulf

ESPN Senior Writer

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