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I AM: Unconquered, undefeated

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Alexx Pons
  • Air Force Personnel Center Public Affairs
The air here is electric on the competition grounds of the 2017 Invictus Games, where 17 nations and more than 550 wounded, ill or injured athletes have come together to showcase their grit; and where one second-time athlete from the U.S. team has set her sights on dominating in the arena.


“This year’s Invictus Games are already leaps and bounds different for me this second time around,” said Air Force veteran Sebastiana Lopez, a former C-17 crew chief staff sergeant. “My confidence level since then has skyrocketed. My injuries were still fairly fresh to me in 2016 and I was still weak compared to where I am now, but I am here ready to take on this year’s new challenges.”


Lopez was not medically cleared to compete in powerlifting during the 2016 games; however, the tenacious athlete did not let those personal roadblocks hinder her aspirations of dedicating herself to rehabilitation and training to make the cut this year.


“I did not think I would make it far during last year’s games,” she said. “But I took home five medals despite the negative perceptions I had of myself and my capability. I do feel more in control of myself this year… like I have a firm grip on my ability and what I intend to do here.”


The five-foot-seven powerhouse aspires to reach the para-Olympic level of competition, using Invictus as a stepping stone to overcome that next hurdle.


“Our coach here is actually the U.S.A. powerlifting coach, and he has been working with me to get me to that point I need to be for those games,” Lopez said. “So, my sights are firmly set on that journey; but outside of Invictus and para-Olympics, I really just want to get back into CrossFit.”


The most recent iteration of the CrossFit Games featured an adaptive exhibition that Lopez would also like to be part of in order to demonstrate her fierce determination in not allowing her personal injuries to define her.


Lopez was involved in a personal motorcycle accident in 2015 that left her in a coma for nearly a month. When she awoke in her hospital bed, she found herself strapped down, surrounded by tubes, on dialysis and missing her right leg.


“In that moment, the saddest thing for me was the look on the faces of everyone in that room… of all my loved ones,” she said. “But I have never been a quitter, and I have never been one to take setbacks or loss sitting down. I knew I would have to pull myself up from that moment, and I knew I would do whatever it took to regain my idea of normalcy in this new life again.”


One of the most normal things for Lopez was simple – sports. The San Bernardino, California native grew up playing sports, particularly volleyball.


“I even played for the Air Force volleyball team for two years, and was a defensive end for arena football out of Atlanta (Georgia) with the Atlanta Steam of the Legends Football league,” she said. “Moving forward, I want to be stronger now than I was pre-injury… I want to be in better shape and a better person. And I think I am close to that point – maybe I have even surpassed it.”


With regard to this year’s Invictus team from the last, Lopez noted the range of recovery stages represented by members of the U.S. team.


“We have a lot of new athletes this year, and we are all in such different places recovery wise,” she said. “I am about two years in mine, but we have some that are as close as 10 years post-injury and I think that level of diversity only helps further inspire us as competitors.


“You can see yourself in comparison to another athlete who is in the same timeframe of recovery you are and aspire to be on their level, and you can also see someone with similar injuries several years beyond that and believe that you will one day be at that stage – it just gives you the will and determination to keep going… to keep pushing.”


A personal journey through the adaptive sports program will never be cookie cutter or one size fits all for these recovering service members.


“I think what they have shown me is that a lot of times you think in terms of able-bodied and not able-bodied, and I just got tired of hearing that,” Lopez said. “Well, now I think ‘no’, adaptive sports has proven it is not that we are not able, we are just able in a different way of executing the same thing from the way we used to – as someone not injured.


“These sports and competitions of this nature show us that while there may be thresholds, they are meant to be crushed. Adaptive sports provide a platform for all wounded athletes to overcome and surpass their limitations.”


And Lopez did dominate in the lightweight women’s category for powerlifting, claiming gold for the U.S. team, but did not downplay the effort it took for her to earn that medal.


“It is incredibly challenging to get up on that bench, remove my prosthetic, be strapped down and try to press that bar,” she said. “My hands still cannot firmly grip since my accident when I broke my ulna. So, when you come from a place where you cannot brush your teeth or comb your own hair, to throwing weight up like that… you feel like a superhero.”


Conquering moments like that, which can be challenging even for non-injured athletes, fuels the appetite of those like Lopez to constantly seek out their next stumbling block. 


“I have always been hungry, and now I am just looking for opportunities to prove people wrong about me – about what I can or cannot do,” Lopez said.


Along with her personal drive to thrive, Lopez did credit adaptive sports and the Air Force Wounded Warrior (AFW2) program with truly helping her and fellow athletes in the recovery process.


“I understand it can be scary and intimidating, but if you are wounded, ill or injured and on the fence about the program or getting involved, please just reach out… that really is the first step,” Lopez said. “Regardless of your personal experience, good or bad, you owe it to yourself to be open minded about what the Air Force can still offer you.


“Keep in mind the system is not perfect, nothing is, and our circumstances are less than ideal. These types of injuries and traumas are just now coming to the forefront, and the military is doing the best they can to keep up and adapt with us to provide the care and support we need.”


Camps provided by AFW2 showcase more than adaptive sports. They also provide things like music and art therapy, as well as employment resources, resume writing assistance and nonmedical caregiver networking opportunities.


But with regard to the Invictus Games, Lopez did have one final sentiment to sum up her mindset toward this year’s competition.


“Simply put, we are all undefeatable,” she said. “We have defied death, we are here and we are strong. We have all come back from the worst odds and that makes us unconquered. And as cliché as it might sound, I do believe we are all masters of our fate and captains of our souls.”


Editor’s note: Lopez is also slated to compete in cycling, rowing, rugby, swimming and track during this year’s Invictus Games.

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