It was an application for a license plate that changed paralyzed Army veteran Tammy Landeen’s life for the better.
In 2009, while preparing for her husband’s upcoming permanent change of station move to Florida, Tammy discovered an option for a specialty Florida license plate featuring Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I really wanted the license plate, but I had to become a member,” she says. “So I researched Paralyzed Veterans and became a member just to get the license plate.”
Little did Tammy know that the license plate would put in motion a passion for sports she never knew she had. Earlier this year, she received an email from a friend who invited her to join a local handcycling group. That’s where she met a member of the Paralyzed Veterans Racing team. “He invited me on the team, and I’ve been hooked,” she says.
Tammy was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident in 2005 after returning from a deployment to Iraq. Having just swapped out deployments with her husband and high school sweetheart, Staff Sgt. Shawn Landeen, Tammy says her injury was the reverse of what one might to expect to happen.
“When someone is serving in a combat zone, it’s usually the other way around,” she says. “My husband was the one who was deployed. I was home with the kids, and he got the emergency message that I was hurt.”
Now, eight years after sustaining that life-changing injury, Tammy has discovered a new passion for sports that has not only helped her cope both mentally and physically but also has dramatically improved her life.
“Truthfully, it’s probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me,” Tammy says of her injury. “I know it’s probably difficult to understand, but there are so many things I’ve been able to do that I wouldn’t have even thought to try to do. So many doors were closed because I couldn’t walk, yet so many other opportunities came along.”
Tammy received her first handcycle from the Department of Veterans Affairs earlier this year. Having never been active in sports prior to her injury, Tammy first approached the sport as just a hobby that would allow her to ride around the block of her neighborhood with her family.
But what Tammy originally considered a hobby has officially turned into a passion, so much that she now rides her handcycle 20 to 25 miles at least three times per week. “It makes me feel so much better physically and mentally,” she says. “My husband says he wishes he could have gotten me this excited about working out when I was on active duty. Now, I feel icky if I don’t do it.”
Having competed in just two races this year, Tammy placed third in the women’s H3 division rankings by the U.S. Handcycling Federation. She also completed her first 50K this month with a time of 2 hours and 41 minutes. While she wanted to attend the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa, FL, in July, the timing conflicted with her husband’s return from a deployment to Afghanistan.
“I was able to compete in the only two races left this year, so I got a taste for what it’s like and plan to run into it head on next year and get a full season,” she says. “I really want to compete, do better and do as many of the races as I can.”
Tammy also has taken up scuba diving as well as horseback riding – an effort she says was scary given that the activity was the source of her injury. But handcycling still remains her favorite, if only for the camaraderie associated with being with her fellow disabled veterans. “It goes above and beyond the competition,” she says. “Hanging out with the team is just amazing.”
Tammy hopes other disabled veterans and others facing new life-changing injuries – after coping with the initial sense of loss and depression early on – will find a way to stay positive, motivated and active.
“One of the things I realized early on was I can sit in my chair and be miserable, or I can sit in my chair and make the best of it. Either way, I still have to sit in the chair,” she says. “You can still enjoy life to the fullest, even if you can’t stand.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.