Tony Davis survived 18 months of duty in the Middle East only to be paralyzed in an automobile accident three weeks before he was to be discharged from the United States Navy.
Six years later, Davis is now one of five “adaptive athletes” training in Oklahoma City to make the U.S. Paralympic National rowing team.
The Devon Boathouse on the Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City is the official Paralympic training site for rowing.
A native of the state of Washington, Davis moved to Oklahoma City in April and is preparing for the national trials in New Jersey later this month.
If Davis and his partner, Jacqui Kapinowski, earn a spot on the U.S. team, they will be competing in August in Slovenia in the world championships.
The ultimate goal is London and the 2012 Olympics.
“I taught myself to walk,” Davis said. “I am going to win a gold medal.”
Davis, 29, was a rescue swimmer and submarine hunter in the U.S. Navy. He earned a medal for logging more than 150 hours of combat flight time, riding a helicopter around the Persian Gulf with a 50-caliber machine gun in the door.
Just three weeks before leaving the Navy in August 2005, Davis broke his back in an automobile accident while traveling on California's I-5 freeway on his way home to Washington.
Davis was asleep in the back when the vehicle he was in rolled four times on the freeway. He was ejected out the car window and found in a ditch with a broken back.
Davis spent four months with a spinal cord injury unit at a veteran's hospital in Seattle. Doctors told Davis there was a 99 percent chance he would never walk again.
“When I got out of the VA hospital I was 140 pounds with no muscle mass,” Davis said. “They sent me home in wheelchair and the whole time in the VA hospital I was taught how to live in a wheelchair. I was taught how to cook and clean and shower, to do everything in a wheelchair.”
For a former semi-pro in both football and baseball, the news was difficult to accept. Davis said he struggled with depression and admits for four years “hated who I was. I tried to destroy myself. I didn't care what happened to me.”
Then Davis got tired of being in a wheelchair.
“One night I layed in bed and asked God for forgiveness and asked him for my legs back,” Davis said. “I started getting out of my wheelchair and started doing things I wasn't supposed to do.”
Davis said he taught himself to walk again by watching his young son learn to walk.
“We learned to walk at the same time,” he said. “I would watch how he would walk and kind of mimic the way he walked.''
Then Davis started competing in sports. Two years ago he attended a winter sports clinic for disabled veterans where he got his first taste of rowing.
There was a competition being held on an indoor rowing machine. The fastest time would win “a nice collared shirt,” Davis said.
Davis wanted the shirt and won it. He also caught the eye of a Paralympic coach who later called him and suggested that he attend a camp where he participated in sitting volleyball, swimming and rowing.
“I got on the water and started rowing and I felt like I was running again,” Davis said. “I felt free. I felt like I could do whatever I want.”
Davis started competing in rowing with immediate success. That led him to Oklahoma City where his is now training full-time.
Matt Musselman, the adaptive rowing coaching, said Davis and Kapinowski have a good shot to make the U.S. Paralympic rowing team to compete in the 2011 world championships.
“They have been putting in 10 to 12 practices a week,” said Matt Musselman, the adaptive rowing coach.
“They are doing physical therapy, doing the weights, doing the rowing, doing everything any able-bodied rower would do.”
Olympic Day will be celebrated Saturday in the Boathouse District on the Oklahoma River in Oklahoma City.
The free event will feature both Olympic and Paralympic sports including cycling,
power lifting, sitting volleyball, running, archery, gymnastics, rowing and kayaking.
Athletes will be available to teach the basics of each sport to anyone who wants to learn.
The day's festivities also includes 48 teams in the OKC RIVERSPORT Corporate League who be racing in the annual Corporate Classic Regatta. Dragon boat races also are scheduled.
OKC RIVERSPORT will offer free kayaking and rowing lessons and dragon boating for ages 8 and older.
The event starts at 9 a.m. and lasts until 2 p.m. on the grounds of the Devon Boathouse. U.S. Rep. James Lankford will be the featured speaker at 11 a.m.
Parking and admission are free. For more information, visit oklahomariverevents.org or call 552-4040.