Marine Corps Reservist veteran Lance Weir had no idea that a life-changing injury in 1993 would one day instill in him a dream to compete in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil.
That dream is now within his reach, and Lance believes he would have never known he had a natural skill or passion for air rifles if it weren’t for his injury.
Lance was canoeing near his hometown of Walnut Ridge, Ark., when a decision to dive into the river to retrieve his baseball cap resulted in life-changing circumstances. Lance’s head hit a submerged rock, shattering his C5 vertebrae and leaving him paralyzed.
“The first few years after my injury were the worst,” Lance says. “I was angry, bitter and felt like I was dead, but somehow I was living. I’m from a small, rural town, so when I left the hospital and went home, there were no resources or opportunities. There was no light at the end of the tunnel at the time.”
But Lance’s outlook improved dramatically four years later when he traveled to Colorado to a rehabilitation center that specializes in spinal cord injuries. It was there that he learned how to drive an adapted van and learned about the opportunity for a service dog through Canine Companions for Independence. “That was a turning point in my life,” he says.
A few years later, Lance was paired up with a service dog – a black lab named Satine -- and after completing his degree, he moved out of his family home in Arkansas to accept a position with Canine Companions in Oceanside, Calif.
Lance’s outlook improved even further in 2011 when a fellow Marine asked him to compete in a trial at Camp Pendelton to build a 50-person team for the annual Warrior Games in Colorado Springs. Lance was skeptical at first, as he had not been active in sports in 17 years and was unaware of a sport he could do with his level of injury.
“Someone asked me to go to the shooting range one day, and we found we were able to adapt an air rifle so that I could compete,” Lance says. “It turned out it was something I was really good at. I qualified to make the team and actually won the competition at the Warrior Games.”
Lance has since taken first place in the past two Marine Corps trials and Warrior Games for air rifles. The Paralympic movement also has recognized him as an emerging shooter. “It’s given me the chance to be around my fellow Marines again which is something I missed over 17 years,” he says. “It’s opened up a lot of doors.”
Lance also completed a 620-mile bike ride from San Francisco to La Jolla, Calif., last year with the Challenge Athletes Foundation, a ride he plans to do again this October. He also has helped coach the Marine Corps shooting team at the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendelton.
Looking forward, Lance hopes his skills in air rifles will qualify him to compete in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But even if he does qualify, the trip alone will have some additional expenses. “I can’t travel alone, so the cost doubles by me having to have help,” he says. “That’s an obstacle, but I’ll find a way to do it.”
Even with his continued success, Lance has not forgotten the individuals who have helped him along the way. He credits Nico Marcolongo of the Challenged Athletes Foundation’s Operation Rebound for purchasing his $4,000 rifle, as well as Canine Companions for providing him with Satine and now a black lab named Auggie, both dogs who have served not only as companions but also tools to live independently.
And Lance hopes his positive attitude and continued record of success will inspire others who are faced with similar life-changing circumstances. “Never lose hope,” he says. “As bad as things are, there are always people who are worse off. If you’re persistent, things will pay off. And don’t be afraid to ask for help or offer it.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.