“The Rise Series” Q & A with Paralympic Gold Medalist, Taylor Lipsett

Taylor Lipsett training at Adaptive Training Foundation in Dallas, TX (Photo Credit: Sean Berry Photography)
Taylor Lipsett training at Adaptive Training Foundation in Dallas, TX (Photo Credit: Sean Berry Photography)

When Taylor Lipsett was diagnosed with a genetic bone disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta as a young boy, he felt that he wasn’t going to enjoy a normal life and play sports. “My doctor told me that I was never going to play sports at the age of five,” Lipsett said. “It was pretty devastating.”

While Taylor went through his series of countless broken legs, his family provided the overwhelming support and gave him the belief of accomplishing big goals and that would be critical in his development as an athlete. He learned about sled hockey through a family friend in a grocery store that their son-in-law was playing for the US Paralympic team, and he walked away wanting to play and having that opportunity of representing his country.

But his first Paralympic experience came with an unexpected twist as his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006, and he became the inspirational motivator for her during her treatments. “It was kind of nature to switch roles,” Lipsett said. His perseverance finally paid off as he achieved his first gold medal in 2010 at the Paralympic Winter Games in Vancouver.

Today, he owns a bronze medal and two gold medals, and is training for the 2018 Paralympic games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Q: When you were growing up as a young boy, how tough was it to not to play sports?
A: It was extremely tough to always have to sit back on the sidelines growing up when my friends were going out with their dad’s buying their first baseball gloves, or their first little league football helmet and those sorts of things. I was either in the hospital or living life in a full body cast, being told that I would never get the opportunity to play organized sports with my friends. I was pretty much guaranteed that I would break more bones and it was hard to watch other kids play sports while I couldn’t. I would try to get close to the action as much as possible. I was bat boy for my brother’s baseball team when I was really young, then when I got into middle school I was the water boy for the basketball team, and in high school I was head athletic trainer for the football and soccer team. So, I was always trying to get close to sports and get close to the team atmosphere as much as I can, but I was always on the outside looking in because of the fact that I had weak bones and I couldn’t have the chance to play team sports.

Q: Were those moments growing up, help you develop the “Never Give Up” attitude as you started playing sports?
A: Yeah, with a doubt. I think one of the biggest life lessons that I learned from my parents was that they preached to me was “you can’t focus on the things you can’t do, but rather focus on things you could do.” Growing up, like I said that I try to get close to sports in any way possible, which was something that I could do, and I spent most of my time working on my schoolwork, which is something that I can devote most of my energy and effort into as well. They really made me focus on the things that I can control and devote my time into being a better all-around person. We never sat around and threw pity parties for ourselves, and they never let me complain about my situation. Once I was able to enter into sled hockey, all of those lessons that my parents taught me were critical into my development as a player. Having that mental strength and positive attitude definitely helped me grow as a person into the Paralympic athlete that I am today.

Q: How do get into sled hockey and how did all started in the beginning?
A: It’s funny; I’ve always liked to tell people that it was divine intervention. I was at the grocery store with my mom on a Sunday afternoon and this lady came around the corner and saw that I was in a wheelchair, and she ran up to me and started to talk me about the Paralympics and sled hockey, and her son-in-law had just won a gold medal, and showed plenty of excitement. I never played or was introduced into adaptive sports, other than wheelchair basketball. In the beginning, I didn’t know what she was talking about, but it turned out that her son-in-law played on the 2002 US Paralympic Sled Hockey team that just won the gold medal in Salt Lake City. She saw that I was in a wheelchair and gave me her son-in-law’s contact information and encourage me to reach out to him. I was a hockey fan in general and I played street hockey with my brother and my friends in my wheelchair over the last few years. So, I was interested and got in contact with her son-in-law, and a couple of weeks later I went out for the first time to check it out. I was a little hesitant at first because you go in the rink and you hear the puck hitting the boards, and you see the players running into each other and hitting the walls, and I’ve broken my legs 90 to 100 times before the age of 12, and so I was hesitant about the contact and physicality. But they convinced me to get out and try it out, and promised me no one would hit me the first day, literally the second that I got all the gear on and hit the ice for the first is the moment that I fell in love with the sport. There is something in getting out of the wheelchair and being on the ice with the cold air that was just a blast and I fell in love instantly and pretty much took control most of my life onwards.

Q: What were some of the struggles that you had while you were first learning to play sled hockey?
A: I think that sled hockey from what I experienced is the most dynamic and more complex wheelchair/adaptive sport that there is. Being in a wheelchair makes you comfortable in all other sports as you try them out. In sled hockey, you’re in a totally different contraption that you are not used to, you have to use your core muscles to balance on two blades, and you are constantly falling into various directions. On top it, you are using two sticks in your hands and so you have to use both hands to push yourself to pass, catch passes, and to shoot. Once you get used to the sport and play competitively to have to use all of those skills while someone is trying to take your head off. The thing that took the longest to get use to at first was I had to use both hands all the time for all the necessary skills in sled hockey.

Q: Were you worried about breaking your arm or hand while playing?
A: I never really worried about my hands or my arms or anything like that because I never had any issues with my arms, and one of the reasons is part of the disease is whatever breaks first when you are younger, it’s kind of the thing that continues to break and when I was younger the bone that I broke were my legs. I would say out of the hundreds of broken bones, 90 percent of them have been through my legs. I was more concerned about my legs and keep myself out of situations where I was getting run into the boards rather than my upper body.

Q: As you got more involved in competitive sports, you would earn your way to representing Team USA at the Paralympic Games, wearing the red, white and blue jersey. Talk to me about that experience and having the crowd chant “USA” as you compete?
A: It’s indescribable to be honest with you. The hype is so real and the adrenaline is pumping so fast through your body, which reflects into an out of body experience when you first get ready on the ice. As far as the ultimate experience is concerned, the best experience in all three Paralympics that I’ve attended has to be the Opening Ceremony. They were just unbelievable and the attendance is like 70,000 to 90,000 people packed into these stadiums, and it doesn’t matter which country is walking out because there all cheering for you as they scream and yell for your country. That pure energy and noise level is just overwhelming and it’s something that will be in memories for the rest of my life. That is the one Paralympic experience that has stood out and it’s something that I’m still in awe of looking back which never gets old.

Q: What was your most significant memory of the entire Paralympic experience?
A: I think the most significant moment for me would be the 2010 Paralympic games in Vancouver after my mother recovered from ovarian cancer. After the 2006 Paralympic games, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and to go through chemotherapy and a hysterectomy. Whenever someone you love goes through cancer you’re never sure how it will turn out, but for her to overcome that and be able to cheer for me in the stands at Vancouver in 2010 was an amazing feeling for me and I felt really lucky to have her there. In addition to her being there, I had a ton of family and friends because it was fairly close to the US, so they were all able to travel there easily. I had about 10 to 12 family members and friends including my wife, and for all of them to be there when I won my first Gold Medal is something that I will always cherish.

Q: What was that feeling like when you won your first gold medal in Vancouver?
A: The first thought that I had when you think of that moment is “man I didn’t know these things were heavy” because they are extremely heavy, but then you really think back to all the work you put into the journey, all the sacrifices that you made, and all the people that helped you along the way. It’s really kind of a journey to eventually accomplish that goal. I made my first national team in 2004 and I didn’t win my first gold medal until 2010, so that was six years of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication just to achieve one goal. There were a lot of experiences and people that helped contribute to that journey and you realized that you’ve accomplished that goal, was rewarding for me. No matter what happens in my life or in my teammate’s lives, no one could ever take that Gold Medal from me.

Q: How did the influence of your family help you during your journey?
A: I think it definitely helped me along the way. The lessons that I was given through my parents really helped me because at a young age, they basically required me to stay positive and were the big influencers for me being able to stay positive, stick with my goals, pursue them, and try to achieve them during the hard times. Having my mom, she made a number of sacrifices when I first started playing; making sure that I was at practice every week, and as a 15 year old I was training with the men’s team in Dallas and they would practice from 11pm to 1am on Friday nights, in which my dad would take me every Friday night. He had to get up and get ready for work at 6am, and he had to make his sacrifices to make sure I got my training in for that week. Also, watching my mom go through chemo and overcome cancer and bounce back from that was the kind resiliency, determination to overcome something that is life threatening, spoke volumes of how resilient my mom is. It showed me that if she can overcome something that is life threatening, then there is no reason why I can’t do that in the sport of hockey.

Q: Now that you are a father, what are some lessons that you try to teach to your daughter as you try to represent Team USA at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games?
A: Yeah, she a little a bit young right now to really comprehend everything that is going on, but at two and half years old she’s already a huge hockey fan. Every time that I’m getting my hockey gear ready to go to the rink, she gets really excited and says “daddy going to the hockey game.” The opportunities that I’m going to have, whether I make the team or not; to teach her someday about having the resiliency to set a goal for yourself and do everything to chase that dream and make those sacrifices to chase that dream is going to be invaluable. I’ll be able to use my experiences for a number of different teaching opportunities for her as she grows up, but being able to compete in the Paralympic Games as a father would be the ultimate trifecta for me. Having to compete in my forth Paralympic Games as a father would cap everything off and wrap up my career the way that I always had envisioned.

Q: As you enter into the twilight days of your hockey career, what is the one word that you want people to remember you for?
A: The most important thing for me is just being a great person and a great leader on and off the ice. The ultimate nod to that is a fellow player who is much younger than me had to write a paper for one of his college courses about someone that is a leader, and he chose to write about me. He talked about how I taught him to be a pro on and off the ice, and really take the chance to be a good person and a quality person in his training for hockey, but also apply it to his school and now his professional career. I think being able to have that kind of impact on another person’s life is the important thing for me and that’s the legacy that I want to leave behind.

July 14, 2017
By: Abel Mehari