The locker room before a game is a place for preparation. For reflection. Last minute scheming for the challenge ahead. Carly Pearson and the Knoxville Sled Bears know all about challenge.
"It's freeing, it gets you away from the wheelchair, it gives you the ability to glide across the ice," said Pearson.
A former firefighter, she is the captain of the Sled Bears, part of the Southeastern Sled Hockey League. This weekend, they're hosting a tournament in Knoxville, with teams from Nashville to Florida, full of veterans, paramedics and athletes; some able-bodied, some with disabilities.
"The best part about it is the team aspect, the comradery," said Pearson. "We're all like a family, we've got each other's backs. Being a former firefighter, that's something I really miss from my injury."
The only difference, besides of course, the sled, is the stick. Two are used instead of one, not just to hit the puck, but to propel you forward.
High above the ice, defenseman Kevin Stone sits with his service dog, Jedi, taking pictures of his teammates. He's out for the tournament.
"I'm sidelined with a concussion, I'm not guarding my goalie like I'm supposed to," he chuckled.
A veteran and a former paralympian, Stone won a bronze medal in Athens, competing in archery. It was while covering the Games as a photojournalist, Stone fell in love with the sled.
"I saw the sport and I saw the veracity, the strength that went with it."
It wouldn't be a short romance, the flame grew with each cold touch of the ice and the feeling it brings.
"Freedom, pure freedom. There's an ease, there's a calmness, there's an adrenaline rush, there's the ice biting you in the face, the cold air rushing across your skin. You don't get that in a wheelchair," said Stone.
The Sled Bears started the tournament with a win against the Sled Preds, a reminder of the strength and perseverance of those on the ice.
"In the world of disability, people always say 'I'm in a wheelchair,' but the wheelchair does not define us, the wheelchair is not us," Pearson said. "I like to say I use a wheelchair, just like I use a sled for hockey."
Stone said, it's a reminder that anything is possible.
"You've always got to believe in what is possible, not just sit back and go 'you know what, I don't have a leg I can't do this, I don't an arm I can't do this, I broke my neck, I can't do this.' Guess what? Yeah, yeah you can."
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