MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. – On a 70-degree California day, track stars took their warm-up lap to get started, focusing on their form and the rhythm of their breathing to ensure a better race.
But unlike other track stars, Marine Corps Cpl. Ivan Sears was competing in a wheelchair.
Sears was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device during a patrol. He didn’t know what hit him, he said, and his fellow Marines from 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, saved his life.
“All my boys kept me calm, patched me up and made sure I stayed alive,” he said. “They’re the reason I’m here today.”
Sears lost both legs above the knee, but it wasn’t until later, he said, that he fully grasped that his life had changed forever.
He said wanted to stay with his unit in Afghanistan and offered to stand duty every day, but he was transported to San Antonio Military Medical Center for rehabilitation. He went to his appointments and did his required physical training, he added, but his social life completely plummeted. When other asked him to go out on the weekends, he said, preferred to stay in his barracks room.
“I was basically like a hermit,” he added.
Then something inside him clicked.
”I thought, ‘I need to get out of this funk. The world’s not going to stop moving. I need to get out and do something with my life,’” Sears said.
He turned to the Marine Corps Trials, which enables wounded, ill, or injured Marines to focus on their abilities and to find avenues to thrive. Sears said he quickly bonded with the other wounded warriors by talking and swapping stories.
“We all have the same story in some parts,” he said. “It helps everyone form a bond, because we’ve been through a lot of similar experiences.”
The Marine Corps Trials also gave Sears the opportunity to get his life back on track through sports. He began running track events with his prosthetic legs, he said, but then a coach pulled him aside and asked if he would like to try wheelchair racing. The coach gave Sears hope and told him he had great potential, so he decided to stick with it.
Wheelchair racing became more of a lifestyle than a sport for Sears. In his first year, he earned a gold and silver medal at the 2013 Warrior Games, became certified for Paralympic standards, competed in nationals and even competed in an international competition in Germany. Thinking back to shortly after his injury, Sears said, he gives credit to wheelchair racing for bettering his life.
“When I race, all I think about is getting from one line to another,” Sears said. “I enjoy the view, and I just keep pushing.”
Sears is training to compete in national wheelchair racing again, but his ultimate goal is to join the Paralympic team, he said. He knows he’ll be there one day, he added, but he’s taking baby steps to get there.
Since Sears has competed at an international level, he isn’t eligible to compete in the Warrior Games, a Paralympic-style joint service competition. Though he can’t participate, his ambition this year at the Marine Corps Trials is to be a mentor to all the other athletes.
Marine veteran Cpl. Josue Barron is a champion in wheelchair basketball at both the Marine Corps Trials and the Warrior Games. This is Barron’s third year, and he’s trying something new: wheelchair racing.
“At first I thought it was going to be easy,” Barron said. “But that wheelchair racing is no joke. It’s pretty hard.”
Sears’ natural ability to compete inspires Barron to do well.
“Sears got really good at [wheelchair racing] in one year,” Barron said. “Him coming out here and giving me some tips and pointers will really help me go far.”
Sears said he thinks back to how he felt when he got injured and can relate to others feeling the same way. But what you’ll get out of any situation, he added, depends on the effort you put into it.
“Not everything’s easy, but if you put the hard work in, then you’ll get it,” he said. “And never give up. Even though you’re injured, there’s still life. Keep your head high.”