John Papai’s story is both horrifying and uplifting. A veteran of the U.S Marine Corps who served four years stateside, Papai has been declared 100 percent disabled.
Diagnosed with traumatic arthritis in both knees due to his military service, Papai nonetheless worked as a deputy for Park County after his release from the Marines in the late 1990s.
While serving as a deputy, Papai played hockey on the law enforcement/firefighters team. “My career as a law enforcement officer ended when I ended up having numerous surgeries on both knees related to my time in the Marine Corps,” he said. “I had 22 surgeries on my left leg, five different types of staph infections, and four knee replacements in six years, all of which failed, resulting in amputation of my leg. This was all performed by the VA.”
He has memories of that last surgery. “But they couldn’t get the rod out so I still the rod in above the knee,” he said. “It was definitely a nightmare.”
Today he is training to compete in the 2020 Paralympics. “The biggest thing is swimming, to get my strength up,” he said.
He is part of a Colorado team sponsored by the VA in Aurora. “The amputee clinic in Aurora is just amazing. Anything I need they will get me,” he said.
Papai skis on one leg. “I was trying to ski with both legs (one prosthetic) but it was a fight a lot of the times,” he said. “So I said ‘to heck with it’ and started skiing one-legged.”
It worked. “And it is so much fun, but definitely a workout because your one leg is doing all the work,” he said.
Last year he was part of the sports clinic hosted by the VA and Disabled Veterans Association in Snowmass. “It’s such a huge boost for any veteran to be able to go up there,” he said. “We had about 1,200 veterans and a lot of them are in wheelchairs competing.”
As a result, Papai added wheelchair basketball to his sports routine and plans to enter the nationals in July in Kentucky, followed by a sports clinic in September in San Diego.
“It’s a huge camaraderie because we know what each other goes through every single day,” he said. “It’s a daily struggle to get up and move, but you have to have the motivation.”
In addition to having his service dog, Kilo, a German shepherd, Papai trains dogs for veterans through Victory Service Dogs.
For now, however, Papai needs help with expenses for the Paralympics tryouts, a racing ski and helmet, in addition to travel and entry fees, for instance. At age 41, he’s determined.
“No matter what we go through, we still have dreams we want to accomplish,” he said. “That’s the thing we want to get through to the guys — that we have to keep going for new goals, to discover new things, chase those and go after them.”