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Navy Swimmer Recovers to Compete in Invictus Games

U.S. Air Force photo
U.S. Air Force photo

When Michael Roggio took his first steps after being told he would not walk again, he went to the bathroom.

He stood in front of the mirror and, nervous about the revelations in his reflection, hesitated to look.

Roggio was afraid he would not see the former football player at Edgewater High School staring back at him. He was afraid he would not identify the man who tried out for the Navy SEALs. He was afraid the man who became a rescue swimmer in the military was lost forever.

Roggio was concerned how significantly a broken neck, followed by months of pain, inactivity and uncertainty, had changed him.

"I will never forget not recognizing the person in the mirror," Roggio said. "It was a surreal experience."

Roggio, who originally is from New Smyrna Beach and lives in Oviedo, will compete in swimming at the Invictus Games. The international athletic competition involving wounded service members is scheduled from May 8-12 at Disney World.

"Some people are OK with giving up when they are down on their luck or are on hard times," said rescue swimmer Cody Smith, who served with Roggio in the Navy. "There are people like Mike who refuse to give up, no matter what. Those are the people who will persevere through anything."

At the time he confronted his mirror image, the 5-foot-10 Roggio had lost 80 pounds off his cinder-block frame. He had withered to 140 pounds since slipping on tools and debris and falling down a flight of stairs at Naval Station Mayport, near Jacksonville, in 2009.

Roggio landed on his head and neck, breaking two vertebrae.

"Your life changes 180 degrees [after an accident], right then and there," said wounded warrior Ryan Shannon, who knew Roggio in the Navy. "It's scary. You don't know what's going to happen. For him to be paralyzed had to be super, super scary."

It became scarier when Roggio's injury went undiagnosed for nearly a year.

He was released from the hospital after a few days but was bedridden for eight months. He spent 10 months in diapers, most of them in constant pain and with paralysis in his hands and legs.

His marriage disintegrated.

"I was almost getting into yelling matches with the flight surgeons," Roggio said. "I was like, 'Feel my neck and feel yours. Something's wrong here.' We went back and forth. Finally one day, one of the flight surgeons said, 'Hey, if we just look at your MRI, will you feel better?' "

When she did, shiny objects -- teeth fillings, of which Roggio has none -- were apparent. Doctors inadvertently had switched Roggio's MRI with another patient's. Once Roggio's proper medical tests were located, he was rushed into emergency surgery.

A hinge and two rods remain attached along his spine.

"I don't control the muscles in my abdomen," Roggio said. "I still have a lot of paralysis in my hands, especially, for some reason. I have it in my legs occasionally. My hands sometimes will get really bad where I have no dexterity, no nothing."

Throughout his ordeal, Roggio said the worst pain was mental.

He said he was depressed for long stretches, and nothing -- not his biological father being imprisoned for selling drugs, not a fractured upbringing during which Roggio moved in with a friend's family, not the risks he took with his own life while saving others in the Navy -- prepared him for that dark cloud.

"I could never relate to people or understand where they were coming from when they would say, 'I just don't have the motivation, or I don't have this,' " Roggio said. "In my old mentality, I would be like, 'Just do it. Man up.' The only thing I can compare it to is like having a sheet over your face and trying to breathe.' "

Stricken with panic attacks, Roggio was suffocating.

"There were days when I was OK, and there were days when I was so bad," he said. "For a long time, I was afraid to fall asleep because I had nightmares, like some of the stuff I did in the military. I would have to relive it in my dreams. My depression was so bad during my recovery, when I wasn't up and moving around and things like that, that I would start to hallucinate. I was well aware of what was happening. I knew, 'Well, that's not right what I am seeing.' "

Roggio saw plenty in the Navy.

He joined in 2006. Roggio said he was motivated to become a search-and-rescue swimmer, with an emphasis on human and drug trafficking, to attempt to "right the wrongs" of his father. He became accustomed to dodging bullets and said he was credited with 57 rescues and seized about 11 metric tons of cocaine.

Roggio retired as a petty officer third class.

"He had a goal he was striving for, and he achieved it when he became a rescue swimmer," said Scott Willis, who has known Roggio since childhood. "He loved it. He enjoyed it."

Mark Pare's family in New Smyrna Beach took Roggio in when he was a boy.

"The accident made him a much stronger person, tougher," Pare said. "Now he is as tough as nails. When he was in the service, he would complain a lot. I told him to 'man up' a lot of times. He is a much more independent person than he was, the kind of person who goes for the gold."

Roggio, who now weighs 205 pounds, would not have made it this far without the inspirational push provided by his daughter, a 7-year-old bundle of energy named Akari.

She has long, dark hair, a sense of adventure, and a love of princesses and "Wreck-It Ralph," a movie about a video-game villain who aspires to be a hero.

Akari recently registered for swimming classes for the first time.

"I literally started my life all over again," said Roggio, who flips houses and is a building inspector. "My daughter was my complete motivation to get better, because I didn't have the influence, a good father figure, and the last thing I would want was for her to miss out on that."

Akari and her father recently were in the water in St. Petersburg when Roggio spotted a four-foot bonnethead shark. Roggio held it, and Akari wanted to do the same.

"I was like, 'Don't you understand that this thing is going to bite you?' " Roggio said. "Then I thought that she was just doing what I was doing."

In that moment, he saw his reflection.

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