Jason Sturm: Fighting a new battle
March 18, 2016
Sunday, the day after the first-ever Para Bobsled and Skeleton World Championships wrap up at the Utah Olympic Park, will be a meaningful day for Jason Sturm.
The para bobsled athlete, who had his left leg amputated below the knee, recalled the day his life changed.
"I’m coming up on my 14-year alive day on March 20," he said. "On March 20, 2002, I was injured by an artillery round that landed five feet behind me, about a mile and a half away from its target. Shrapnel basically ripped through my calf and destroyed my lower leg."
Sturm’s injury took place in an Army training exercise in upstate New York. He was stationed at Fort Drum, about 30 miles south of the Canadian border.
"They were launching artillery rounds," he said. "They were retesting firing software. What they were supposed to do was take the firing software, calibrate the weapon through the software and double-check it manually. They didn’t re-check the weapons after jumping locations and they fired two rounds that landed a mile and a half short of their target. One landed five feet behind me and the other one landed about 15 meters to my right. It ended up killing two people and injuring 13 of us."
At first, Sturm attempted to rehabilitate the injured leg, but eventually opted to amputate.
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"They did some limb salvage work on me while I was in the Army, but they turned around afterwards and said my prognosis went from ‘You’re going to be fine and you’ll be able to run and everything,’ to ‘One day, you might be able to walk with a cane.’
"I was about 25 years old at the time and said, ‘This is stupid,’ and I had them amputate the leg. That was about eight months after the initial incident and I’ve been fine ever since."
Though it would be easy for the former sergeant to blame the Army for changing his life, he said he’s never thought that way.
"I was never bitter about it," he said. "In the military, even in practice, you have to understand that when you’re in the field or practicing your job, you’re playing with real bullets and real guns. Things are going to happen.
"It’s unfortunate that this happened, but the only thing I tell people, and something that I’m in complete honesty about, is that if I could have taken the brunt of all that — even if it meant me not being here — and having no one else get injured, I would have gladly done it. The amount of people who got injured and the two people who were killed, it was saddening, but at no point was I ever angry about any of it."
Looking at Sturm now, one would think he’d been an athlete his whole life. Maybe he played football, or wrestled. But Sturm said that’s not the case at all. He sums up his athletic background in three words.
"There wasn’t one," he laughed. "I was actually a former fat kid. When I went to join the Army, I was almost 300 pounds. I lost about 50 pounds just to get into basic training. I went to basic training at about 230 pounds and got out at about 190, so I lost about another 40 in basic."
He said the Army instilled a strong work ethic in him and that led him to a more active lifestyle.
"When I got into the Army, I figured out that one of the ways you can progress is to make sure your physical training scores are up there," he said. "I just started lifting weights and power lifting and running and things like that."
After his amputation, he was worried that his days of being active were over.
"I was kind of down in the dumps a little bit after I got injured, but only because I didn’t know how I was going to get back to lifting weights and having that active lifestyle," he said. "In about the 2007 timeframe, I decided I wanted to run again, so I went to my prosthetic therapist and he said if I wanted to run, I had to lose more weight. So I lost another 20 pounds and got a running leg and started running all these races."
Sturm said he’s run 5Ks, 10Ks, Tough Mudders, Spartan races and even half marathons. He’s never run a full marathon, but has competed in overnight treks carrying a 50-pound rucksack. He also became a big CrossFit enthusiast and competes in Highland Games competitions, throwing large stones, kegs and other heavy weights.
Then, a few years ago, he found his way to the sport of para bobsled.
"I got started in bobsled basically because someone sent me a message on Facebook and asked me if I wanted to try out for the team," he said. "They weren’t really tryouts, but I was coming out to see if I could try as a brakeman. It was 2013 in Calgary and I came out and pushed a sled a couple times and had fun and really liked it. I just sort of happened into the sport that way and fell in love with it from the very first run."
Right now, Sturm competes from a sitting position in the same class as paraplegics. Eventually, he’d like to be part of a push-and-load competitive category alongside other amputees. A push-and-load class is currently being discussed, but no concrete plans have been made.
First, though, he’s determined to help the sport get into the Paralympics. Top Paralympic officials are in Park City this weekend to determine if the sport will gain inclusion into the Paralympic Games.
"[Getting into the Paralympics] is more important to me than medaling this week," he said. "In all honesty, this week, if I come away with a medal, that’s fine. If I come away this week and we’ve put such an impression in the International Paralympic Committee’s eyes that this is a viable sport and we do get inclusion in the 2022 [Paralympic] Games, that’s more important to me than any medal.
"This is something I take seriously. I thoroughly enjoy this sport and one of the biggest things I want to see is this sport succeed. I want to see us show up to an Olympic environment and compete."
Sturm said that even if he is one of the pioneers who helps the sport gain Paralympic status, he’s not sure he’ll be able to participate.
"I’m kind of an older guy," the 38 year old laughed. "By the time we get into the Paralympics, I might have to have a Masters division."
The Para Bobsled and Skeleton World Championships wrap up on Saturday night at the Utah Olympic Park. Competitions take place from 5 to 7 p.m. and awards will follow at 7:20 p.m. Admission is free.