By Shannon Collins
TORONTO — When former Air Force volleyball and arena football player medically retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Sebastiana Lopez-Arellano almost died in a motorcycle accident in 2015, she said she never thought she would be able to play sports again.
“I didn’t lost consciousness when I hit the tree. I shattered my femur and my knee. I broke my femur in half and severed my femoral. My leg was flipped upside down,” she said.
After almost dying and sliding into a coma for a month, she woke up to an amputated leg and the knowledge that she was an above-the-knee amputee with quadriplegic hand function. Though she’s had more than 50 lifesaving surgeries and the scars to prove it, she said she doesn’t let them deter her recovery.
“I lost half my body weight; I went from about 160 to 80 pounds so I was struggling with my activities of daily living,” she said. Her recovery care coordinator at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, pushed her to go to an Air Force Wounded Warrior adaptive sports camp.
“I didn’t think I was ready to start any of the adaptive camps yet,” Lopez-Arellano said. “I was intimidated because of the weight loss but my recovery care coordinator was like, just give the camp a try. She didn’t tell me it was the tryouts of the [Department of Defense] Warrior Games team. I did really well there; medaled a bunch and made the team the first time around.”
She went on to medal at the DoD Warrior Games and at her first Invictus Games here this week, she took home the gold in the women’s lightweight division of powerlifting, a gold in the hand cycling time trial, a silver in hand cycling, the bronze in discus and the bronze medals in the 50-meter breast and 100-meter breast in swimming in her disability category.
More than 550 wounded, ill and injured service members from 17 nations competed in 12 sporting events including archery, track and field, cycling, golf, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball Sept. 23 to 30 as they are cheered on by thousands of family members, friends and spectators in the Distillery District here.
As a first-generation American, Lopez-Arellano said she joined the Air Force because she felt like she owed something to her country.
“My family came here from Mexico. I have nine brothers and sisters and five out of 10 of us joined the military, all different branches of service,” she said. “It was kind of in our blood to join. My parents got their citizenships recently so they’re super-proud Americans now.”
Although Lopez-Arellano had trouble with her shifter on her hand cycle during her race, the former C-17 crew chief said she had the most fun she’s ever had on a race, thanks to her Team U.S. teammate, Air Force Capt. Christy Wise, who flies HC-130 aircraft and rides the upright cycles.
“I was having problems with my shifter, and it was a very technical course. She was having a hard time keeping up with the first two girls. As an above-the-knee amputee, it’s hard for her to keep up with the below-the-knee and the two feet, so she had a rough start, too,” Lopez-Arellano said. “We were both kind of in the dumps, so she was like, ‘You know what, I’ll pull you’ and what that means is, I’ll draft off of her and she’ll take some of the wind. We kept such a good cadence after that. At the end of it, we couldn’t stop smiling.”
Wise is the first Air Force female pilot to return to active duty who has an amputated leg above the knee. “She’s a bad ass. I love her,” Lopez-Arellano said.
Lopez-Arellano said he’s also friends with many of the international competitors such as the U.K.’s Jen Warren and New Zealand’s Tina Grant. “Tina was here last year, and she’s always trying to get me out to New Zealand. I’m always so busy so it’s hard to make time to go out there, but hopefully soon,” she said. “I met this powerlifter, Sarah [Sliwka from Australia]. We swapped shirts the other day. That was pretty cool.”
Lopez-Arellano said that when the whistle blows or the gun goes off, everyone is competitive, but at the finish line, “Everyone’s waiting for you or they’ll come back and ride down with you.”
She added, “They honestly become lifelong friends in an instant. From last year’s games, I stayed in touch with most competitors on Facebook and followed their stories and have a home no matter where I go. If I want to travel and go to Australia or New Zealand, there’s always someone there with an open door there for you. They will open up their homes. It’s pretty awesome.”
Lopez-Arellano said she’s continually inspired by her fellow competitors at events like the DoD Warrior Games and Invictus Games.
“There are literally no limits. I see people do amazing things here,” she said. “Your injury doesn’t define you. You take control of your life. You take it back. A lot of these guys end up going to the Paralympics or starting businesses because it gives them that extra edge. I see triple and quadruple amputees swimming. Where else can you see that? We’re unstoppable.”