Army veteran Laura Schwanger had merely existed in the years following her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1982.
Learning life in a wheelchair and being medically retired, I merely existed for about two years. That was until I found adaptive sports. The rest is history; sports gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Living in Boston at the time, Laura, only in her mid-20s with an entire life ahead of her, began to fall in love with wheelchair sports, particularly track and field. Friends invited her to attend the Boston Marathon, where she witnessed the first 12 competitors cross the finish line in wheelchairs. “I knew then that was what I wanted to do,” she says.
In the early 1980s, Laura moved from Boston to Philadelphia, where she became involved with a local track and field team and was instantly hooked. “It was a good time to be a woman with a disability as adaptive sports were evolving and there were a lot of opportunities,” she says.
For Laura, it was not just the timing that was good; it was her natural skill. In 1987, she was named to Team USA in track and field for the 1988 Paralympics, where she won four gold medals. She competed with Team USA in two subsequent Paralympic Games, winning three silver medals and a bronze medal in 1992 and three silver medals in 1996. “When I was diagnosed with MS, I had no idea I’d eventually be trading in my fatigues for the USA uniform,” she says.
When I was diagnosed with MS, I had no idea I’d eventually be trading in my fatigues for the USA uniform.
Having retired from Paralympic competition in 1996, Laura went on to finish her college education, completing her Masters degree in Counseling Psychology at Immaculata College. She went to work with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as veterans she had a unique connection to – those adjusting to life after a disability.
But in 2006, another startling diagnosis struck, this time in the form of a lump in Laura’s breast. “I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and at the time, I realized I didn’t want to wait for the next diagnosis to question why I hadn’t done the things I wanted to do,” Laura says. “I finished my treatment and was extremely weak, weaker than ever in my life.”
Yet out of that weakness spurred a new passion – for rowing. Laura’s refusal to let another startling diagnosis weaken her resolve ultimately led her back to the Paralympic stage. In 2008, she competed on Team USA in Beijing, China, this time winning a bronze medal in rowing.
“I have gold medals from past Paralympics, but that bronze medal in rowing probably means the most to me,” Laura says. “I was so weak after my radiation treatments, but once I finished, I started on an exercise program, and eight weeks later I was invited to start rowing. Up until then, everything had been about breast cancer.”
Paralyzed Veterans also was instrumental in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has made my life so much easier and accessible.
Now living in Florida, Laura continues to row and mentor others through adaptive sports. She also loves to ride her motorcycle and this year will join a group of women on a 1,400-mile motorcycle ride to Wisconsin.
Above all, Laura remains thankful for the support of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I have received the benefits of the work of Paralyzed Veterans of America, particularly the coordinated care at the VA that has supported my disease and my cancer,” Laura says.
“Paralyzed Veterans also was instrumental in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has made my life so much easier and accessible.”
Laura also hopes other veterans will come to the realization that she had – that it is possible to do more than merely exist following a disability. “Each day is a gift,” she says. “The alternative is to curl up in a hole or to die, but it’s a gift that we are still here. The front door may have closed, but other doors might have opened, and joy can be found in opening those alternate doors that lead to something new you can succeed in.”
Each day is a gift. The alternative is to curl up in a hole or to die, but it’s a gift that we are still here. The front door may have closed, but other doors might have opened, and joy can be found in opening those alternate doors that lead to something new you can succeed in.