By Richard Rhinehart
Austin, Texas, July 11, 2013 – Unsure as to what her future may hold, in May 2010, Navy veteran Nicolette Maroulis decided to ride a hand cycle across America with the Sea to Shining Sea team from World T.E.A.M. Sports.
“I jumped on the opportunity,” recalled Maroulis. “People’s doubts are what normally fueled me, but now I had someone that had faith in me, I wasn’t sure how to react. I knew it was a great opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
Following her participation in the 110-mile, two-day Face of America bicycle and hand cycle ride with disabled veterans from Washington to Gettysburg, she found herself in San Francisco as an invited member of a cross country bicycle ride from the national non-profit.
“I got involved with World T.E.A.M. Sports during a crucial time in my recovery,” Maroulis said. “I was unsure of what my future held. The emergency was over and I shifted gears from survival to trying to figure out what my new norm would be. The realization that I would never be the same was hitting me and I had to figure out what that meant. I still wasn’t comfortable in my new role as a civilian and felt like I couldn’t relate to those around me. I found myself needing to prove my capabilities to myself.”
As a Master-at-Arms K9 Handler for the Navy from November 2001 through August 2007, the Hawaiian native was critically injured during her service in 2003. Sustaining hip, shoulder, leg, knee, back and nerve damage, as well as TBI and PTSD, Maroulis used a wheelchair for three and one-half years, uncertain if she would walk again. But, she was determined to try.
Through surgery, intense physical therapy and the strong support of her husband TJ, Maroulis relearned how to walk. “I was barely walking with a cane, in a lot of pain and didn’t have a hand cycle of my own,” she said. “World T.E.A.M. Sports came around.”
Crossing America, Maroulis had the opportunity to spend two months with other adaptive veterans, and to meet the nation she had served while in the Navy. “I was greeted by a Vietnam veteran who was pulled over by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, he was holding a flag and took as we rode by,” she recalled. “Here is a veteran who did not get a welcome home who took time from his day to honor us. What a huge honor to meet him. I had to pull my bike over to talk to him and get his story and that was just one of many people I met on our ride.”
Following the conclusion of the ride, Maroulis transitioned from her cross-country bicycle journey to the Soldiers to the Summit Himalayan Expedition with World T.E.A.M. Sports. Traveling to the Kingdom of Nepal only two months after reaching Virginia Beach, Maroulis found the experience to be life-changing.
“There were so many awesome moments,” Maroulis said about the Military Initiative event from World T.E.A.M. Sports. “It was a very challenging and honest look at my capabilities. The mountain doesn’t let you hide behind pride, you really end up being vulnerable, something I had been trying so hard to avoid. It makes you take an honest look at your strengths and weaknesses.”
“One of the memorable moments was at this tea house where they were burning yak dung to keep us warm. We ate Nepalese cuisine and drank tea, my favorite was milk tea. We stayed up late talking and teasing each other even though the smell of dung was taking over the whole tea house.”
Successfully reaching the ice and snow-covered summit of the 20,075-foot Lobuche East, Maroulis returned home and resumed her education. She graduated from American Military University this year with a degree in Sports and Health Science.
Participating in screenings for the documentary film “High Ground,” chronicling the Lobuche climb, Maroulis decided she could use her personal experiences to help other veterans. “When I came home, I was so full of motivation I didn’t know where to focus my energy. I found myself seeking out more opportunities. More mountain climbs and bike rides and other activities. Through my excitement I tried to get more people involved.”
Talking with other veterans and members of the disabled community, Maroulis found that many are reluctant to take on the challenge of a lengthy bicycle ride or a climb of a high mountain. “Most people had no clue where or how to start training. If you add their injuries into that, they are really lost. Although some may like the idea of climbing a mountain or riding their bike across the country, they believe that is only for people that have trained for years.”
Maroulis began discussing her ideas with Marine Corps veteran Randy Jones about creating a new organization that could help those with disabilities who needed to begin training before taking on larger sporting activities. Through their discussions, the non-profit Summit International Development Group was created in January 2011. Serving as the Texas-based organization’s executive director, Maroulis works towards fulfilling their mission of supporting, aiding and honoring disabled veterans and first responders as they set, meet and exceed their fitness goals.
“We have everything from dads who want to learn how to ride their bikes again to moms who want to take on Ironman races,” Maroulis explains. “There is a mental component to first responders and wounded warriors that I enjoy helping as well. There is no goal or injury too small or too big. We can find a way to help. We have sport-specific coaches and mentors that help guide the veteran throughout the process.”
From their headquarters in Austin, Texas, Maroulis said they “try to concentrate our efforts here. That being said, we seem to be growing and have partners popping up throughout the country. We are starting to offer more to other states.”
Maroulis reports that Summit IDG offers a variety of programs for veterans. “We partner with numerous gyms in the area and offer a wide variety of opportunity. We have general fitness programs such as crossfit, strength training, etc. We also have sport specific programs such as rugby, soccer, tennis, kayaking, skulling, marathon, triathlon, bike riding, and Olympic lifting. Recently, we added MMA. We have a great team of coaches and mentors and are always looking for more volunteers.”
As a non-profit organization, Maroulis is always seeking sponsorship support. “Donations support our athletes’ gear they may need to participate and entry fees into the event they have trained for. It also goes towards paying the coaches and gym memberships that help our veterans and first responders.”
For veterans and other persons with disabilities who are considering becoming active in sporting activities, Maroulis advises to “just do it.”
“It is so easy for us to stay in our heads about stuff,” she said. “I know it was hard for me to be in unfamiliar areas. It caused me a lot of anxiety. I was always self-conscious of my traumatic brain injury and just wanted to stick to myself so I felt like I had some control. But at the end of the day, sports saved me. It pushed me out of my comfort zone and allowed me to grow as a person.”
Although her duties with Summit IDG keep her busy, Maroulis has taken time to climb. Since the Lobuche climb, she has climbed in Arizona, Colorado and Macedonia. In September 2012, she climbed Grand Teton with a team of adaptive veterans with Colorado’s Paradox Sports. Joining with fellow World T.E.A.M. Sports athlete Chad Jukes, who rode cross country and climbed Lobuche with her two years earlier, Maroulis successfully summited the iconic 13,766-foot Wyoming peak.
“Overall, sports has allowed me to grow as a person, mentally and physically,” Maroulis said. “It has helped me with my traumatic brain injury and nerve damage. I would not be as happy as I am now if I did not participate in physical activity that challenges me.”
Richard Rhinehart serves as Director of Communications for World T.E.A.M. Sports.