Former ASU student Gavin Warren broke his back in 2006 after a snowboarding accident. Now, he is a successful chair racing athlete with the nonprofit organization Arizona Disabled Sports, which will host their annual showcase The Paralympics Experience Saturday.
Gavin Warren went to Utah as part of a business trip in 2006. He left a few days early to meet with his brother and best friend and practice snowboarding. On the last day, he fell and broke his back. He has not walked since.
“I was expecting a child and (the mother and I) were going to get married,” he said. “I just kind of fell. (It was) a freak accident, and I broke my back.”
Warren graduated from high school in 1995 and went to Mesa Community College for three years. In 1998, he transferred to ASU to major in history.
His development was delayed after his mother became ill and he had to take care of her. Warren also had to pay for all his education expenses.
“I was paying for myself to go to school, so I took a break to make some more money,” he said. “Next thing you know I was working more and more.”
Four weeks after his accident, his daughter was born.
Warren returned to ASU shortly after he broke his back, but had to leave because of health issues.
In March of 2010 he had spinal surgery. Warren suffered a hospital-born virus right after the surgery and had to be put in the Intensive Care Unit.
“When you are what you feel like is close to dying,” he said. “All you think about are the people you care about … (and) all I could think about was my little girl.”
He was finally discharged after a few weeks.
“When I came out of the hospital, I was just bound and determined that I was going to recover as much physical health as I could,” he said.
The recovery began when he rejoined Arizona Disabled Sports, a nonprofit local organization that provides adaptive sports and recreation programs for people with disabilities.
Warren found out about the organization in 2008 after a therapist told him about the Paralympics Experience, a yearly showcase of track, field and archery.
This year’s event will be held Feb. 2 at Mesa High School.
“I never really thought to do any sort of disabled sport,” he said. “I was kind of put off. I played athletics my whole life and didn’t want to do a substitute.”
Lane Gram, executive director of Arizona Disabled Sports, said Warren was timed and shocked when he first came to experience the Paralympics Experience.
“Just in his short five years, he’s really come a long way,” she said. “He’s one of the most dedicated, trained athletes.”
Warren realized that it was very challenging after being on a race chair for the first time. The motivation to master the sport kept him going, he said.
“Part of the challenge when I first started was that I was terrible at it,” he said. “I hated looking at the backs of people pulling away from me.”
Immediately after his surgery, Warren started to practice again.
“About three weeks out of the hospital I did a 12K,” he said. “About five weeks out of the hospital, I tried to qualify for the national championship and just missed it. From there, I was just obsessed.”
Warren made the Paralympics trials but did not qualify for the team that represented the U.S. in London 2012.
“It was satisfying to be good at something after six years of … fighting to hang on,” he said.
Warren planned to go back to ASU this semester but was not able to finish the paperwork on time. He hopes to return next semester to complete his last year and then begin a graduate degree in public policy.
Last weekend, Warren completed the P.F. Chang’s Rock n’ Roll marathon. He is training to qualify for the Boston Marathon this year.
Warren is part of the elite racing team, the Arizona Heat, at the Arizona Disabled Sports.
His coach, Troy Davis, was part of the Paralympics team in Sydney in 2000.
During practice, Davis trains in his race chair along with his team.
“Gavin has natural athleticism,” he said. “Like the rest of the athletes, he was challenged at first.”
Davis said he saw a lot of progress in Warren’s technique and abilities as of last season.
“I’m looking forward to this season to see him develop even further,” he said.
The best part of the organization is the remarkable team atmosphere, he said.
“You get out there and you start making friendships,” he said. “They start encouraging you and you become part of something.”
The organization can be beneficial, not just for those disabled, but for those looking to get involved in something, Warren said.
“I have a disability; it’s physical, (and) you can see it,” he said. “There (are) lots of people who have problems that are internal and you can never see.”
Warren said his biggest motivation to move forward after his accident was his 6-year-old daughter.
“She’s the light of my life,” he said. “She was my motivation from the get-go.”
After his relationship with her mother dissolved, Warren knew his daughter needed him to rebuild his life, he said.
“I coach her soccer team, (and) I take her to gymnastics every week,” he said. “She’s my best friend. My best friend is 6 years old.”
His daughter provided the greatest support, he said.
“I was different (and) the world saw me differently,” he said. “(My daughter) loved me any way.”
Warren said he was able to overcome all his obstacles because of all the help he received from his family.
“For the rest of my life I could say thank you to my mother, my father, my brothers, my aunts and my little girl, and I wouldn’t say thank you enough,” he said.
Warren would like to start a disabled racing team when he returns to ASU next semester.
ASU provided him with tremendous support and resources after his accident, he said.
“I loved ASU after I got hurt, because the community embraced me and said, ‘What can we do to help?’” he said. “It’s also very accessible.”
Warren said he would like to become an advocate for disabled sports after he graduates.
“It’s not about what I can’t do,” he said. “It’s about what I can do.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org
Listen to Gavin’s story on this week’s State Press Conversations.