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One athlete’s struggle beneath the surface

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Chip Pons
  • Air Education and Training Command Public Affairs
The official gestures the athletes to take their mark. Swimmers have stepped up on their respective diving platforms and prepare to jump headfirst into the pool, piercing the water and swimming with all their might.


For Petty Officer 1st Class Rob Troha, a Coast Guard intelligence specialist and member of Team U.S. at the 2017 Invictus Games, the start is a little slower, his steps a little uneasy and unlike the rest of his competition, he is not alone behind the starting block.


Physically supporting Troha and helping him find his balance is his wife, who stands gently holding her husband’s hips.


As the whistle blows signaling the start of the race, Troha, assured by the subtle reminder of his wife’s unconditional support, pushes off into the depths of the pool and propels toward the finish line.


“Her support and strength continues to be unwavering,” Troha said. “Over the years, she has been there for me and our four children, stepped up beyond anyone’s expectations and has truly been my emotional rock throughout this journey toward recovery. To have her by my side competing on this international stage, literally supporting me as I participate in something that brings me joy, is a feeling I could never put into words.”


Upon contact with the water, Troha, a once collegiate-level swimmer and San Antonio, Texas native, is instantly back in his element, allowing muscle memory to take over, while the diagnosis of a degenerative brain disorder to all but fades to the recesses of his mind.


Following the diagnosis of Spinocerebellar Ataxia IV, a progressive disorder that affects muscle movements and hinders speech in 2015, Troha accepted that he would no longer have the quality of life he was once accustomed to. But upon being introduced to adaptive sports, his outlook quickly changed.


“Swimming and competing were very low on my priority list when I was originally diagnosed, but I was concerned about how I was going to regain some sense of normalcy,” Troha said. “I questioned how I was going to be an effective husband, a loving father, and I truly thought everything from that point on was over; however, I have found that by pushing myself physically, adaptive sports have allowed me to not necessarily regain normalcy, but get me as realistically close to it as possible.”  


Sitting on the pool deck, Troha wears a leather strap across his torso that links him to Gauge, his 110-pound Great Dane service dog. For the last seven months, Troha and Gauge have spent their days establishing a training routine, learning each other’s mannerisms and forming an essential and unconditional bond between dog and handler – a bond that Troha firmly believes has significantly improved his journey as a wounded warrior.


“The thing I love about working with dogs is that they are subjective; they see the world in black and white, good and bad,” Troha explained. “They don’t see amputations, illness, or disabilities - they have an immense capacity for love.”


With a deep understanding of the science and psychology behind the art of dog training, Troha has used the detail oriented and repetitious nature of training to help deal with his anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and as a general distraction from his diagnosis.


Troha’s condition however, makes everyday movements and activities a challenge, oftentimes putting more strain on his wife. 


“For someone suffering from an invisible wound, it is so nice to work with Gauge and not feel judged or be subjected to the opinions of others,” he continued. “I can’t tell you how many times my family and I have been some place public, like the grocery store, where my wife has had to get the kids in the cart, navigate the aisles and load the groceries into the car, only to receive the questioning stare of onlookers who simply don’t see the bigger picture – who only see my lack of assistance. Dogs aren’t quick to judge like we are.”


Noting that training dogs, specifically working dogs, was and always has been a passion of his, Troha found solace in the ability to continue pursuing that passion despite the limitations and aggravations of his diagnosis.


“Even when I knew something wasn’t right with me physically and mentally, to be able to teach this animal something and have them master it seemed like a small step in the right direction,” he said. “Immersing myself back into Gauge’s training allowed me to focus on other things besides my diagnosis. When you have a mental disorder, it is sometimes hard to ‘get out of your own head,’ but by focusing my efforts on the repetitive training and commands, I have been able to.”


Competing in his first Invictus Games, Troha has been blown away by the athleticism of his teammates and the competitors from across the globe, but it is the camaraderie and overall sense of support and mutual understanding that inspires him the most.


“This is quite overwhelming,” he said. “When I was diagnosed two years ago, I never thought for a second that I would be here. I thought that this was the end-all, be-all for me. But now, here I am surrounded by these warrior competitors who genuinely understand what each one of us has gone through to get to this point. While they may not understand exactly what you’ve been through, they acknowledge that you’ve endured something life-changing, and regardless of what stage of recovery you are in, there is someone here who can relate.”


“When I was diagnosed, I momentarily lost my identity, but being involved in this program allowed me to have a paradigm shift,” he continued. “While I may not be able to swim as fast as I once could, or I may be limited professionally as a service member, I still get the opportunity to be a dedicated, good husband. I still can be a loving and doting father; and while my diagnosis has changed a lot of things for me, it didn’t change who I am as a person – I won’t let it take that away from me.”

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