AF Veteran Shares Wisdom With Young Paralympians

LONDON  -- The camaraderie of being part of a team is a draw to many athletes and can be traced to the origins of why many embarked on lengthy careers, staying the course even when things are not always going their way.

Mario Rodriguez, a member of the U.S. Paralympic fencing team and former Air Force staff sergeant, is one such athlete competing at the 2012 Paralympic Games here.

"I was a Russian translator for just under four years with the Air Force," he said. "I really loved the job. I liked serving my country, being at the forefront of things. And the other part of that was just basically being part of something bigger than myself. I think that's kind of how I ended up in sports, because (I enjoy) being part of a team, (building teams), and doing thing together to make things happen.

"Nobody's in this by themselves," he added. "It takes a community to do anything."

Rodriguez said he served his lone Air Force tour stationed on the Greek island of Crete. He elected to have his leg removed in 1992 after an untreatable tumor was discovered. It was then that he discovered wheelchair fencing and began his career.

During his bouts -- in which he unsuccessfully faced competitors from Hungary, Hong Kong, France and Russia -- the Paralympian fencer said, he didn't feel quite as focused as he could be.

"I was trying to be in the right place at the right time," he said. "This is definitely a game of wits and speed. I definitely had the preparation. I guess I'm just getting a little bit old, to put it bluntly."

Rodriguez said he stepped away from the fencing in 2004, but later the appeal of coaching young, talented fencers brought him back.

"Between 2008 and now, I kind of got coached back into the (fencing) circuit," Rodriguez said. "Basically, what happened was we have a couple of younger athletes that really piqued my interest, and I wanted to see them do well."

Rodriguez noted that as he went to some of the same tournaments and had some success, such as taking the gold medal in Brazil's zonal championships, he built a rapport with the younger athletes.

"I was trying to give them a little extra fodder, and give them the benefit of my experience and knowledge," he said.

Hearing the national anthem at the championship was amazing, Rodriguez said, and also served to inspire him to return to the game.

"I wish I could do that here, but I don't think it's going to happen for me," he said. "It's great to be part of something bigger than myself."

Rodriguez said his goals for the Paralympic Games were to perform the best he could, be a good representative of the United States and spend time with old athlete friends from other countries, noting that he enjoys sharing the experience with all of the athletes, volunteers and coaches.

Rodriguez also talked about his preparation for Paralympic competition and the advice he gives to younger competitors.

"I think before, the key to my success was overtraining," he said. "I've got to a point in my career where overtraining is definitely detrimental to my being able to stay on the mark. What I (would) tell anyone these days is the most important thing is being able to find a good, healthy sports regimen and not overdoing it."

The Paralympic fencer also said, "It's a very, very fine edge to ride on when you're training for something like the Paralympics or any elite sport.

"You have to take care of yourself," he continued. "If you overdo it, then you can't do your personal best. You've got to stay in good physical shape, good mental shape and just be consistent."

Rodriguez said he is his own worst critic when it comes to examining his own performances.

"I think, some of us, maybe more than others, are (tough on ourselves)," he said. "I tend to be self-critical, and I want to do better, and make my coach ... (and) teammates happy -- make myself happy."

At the end of the day, the Air Force veteran said, he's just happy to represent his country in the Paralympic Games.

"I feel like I've gotten a lot of support," Rodriguez said. "I looked out in the stands and saw several members of our team -- not just people in the fencing community, but from other sports as well. So that really pushed me to do the best I could."

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