This Idahoan’s goal won gold for U.S. at 2014 Paralympics. Now he’s helping future stars

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Josh Sweeney has always enjoyed tinkering — whether it was Lincoln Logs or erector sets, or an old computer he could take apart and put back together.

But he never could have imagined where that propensity would take him as an adult.

Sweeney recently started his own winter gear business, JS Adaptive Sports, based in Nampa. The company’s goal is to help adaptive athletes realize their true potential.

A former Paralympian in sled hockey and Nordic skiing, Sweeney now wants to assist the next generation of stars.

“I’m kind of realizing I can’t do everything, and now I’m looking more towards how I can help future Paralympians or future para-athletes become champions,” Sweeney told the Idaho Statesman in an interview. “I would like to be able to use my business to help kids, because that’s a huge underserved market in the adaptive world.

“I would love to be able to get these kids out here the equipment they need so by the time they’re 18, 20, they’re already on a successful path for Paralympics and not just starting.”

‘A BIG, BIG CRAZY MESS’

Sweeney joined the military directly out of high school and was sent to Afghanistan in 2009.

About a week into his deployment, Sweeney was on an early morning mission in the town of Nawzad. Once the sun came up, his team realized it could not accomplish its mission from the position it was in and decided to relocate.

“We packed our stuff up, started moving and ended up in this bad area,” Sweeney said. “I found out later it’s literally called amputee alley. We took a quick security haul to make sure everybody was good, and then we were about to go up into this area above this building. I was kneeled down, and when I stood up and turned around, I stepped and an IED (improvised explosive device) went off.”

It took a total of six hours to get Sweeney and his team, which was under heavy enemy fire, to safety. That made it impossible for a helicopter to be cleared to land and evacuate them. Sweeney was eventually put in a “doc in the box” — essentially a shipping container on the back of a big truck.

“It was just a big, big crazy mess,” Sweeney said. “… They had a doctor in there and they knocked me out. I don’t remember anything after that.”

A NEW REALITY AFTER WAR IN AFGHANISTAN

Sweeney lost both his legs in the explosion and endured multiple surgeries in the months that followed.

Once he was released from the hospital, he began rehabilitation at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio, Texas.

“They were big on sports as recreational therapy as a form of rehabilitation and really pushed, ‘Hey, what sports are you doing?’” Sweeney said. “Every Friday it was you had to try whatever new sport they were doing, and it was everything from dodgeball to sitting volleyball to wheelchair basketball. So I was immediately, after being injured, thrown into playing sports.”

Sweeney played sports growing up, including hockey in high school, and said he quickly fell back in love with the camaraderie that comes with being part of a team.

When his physical therapist found out Sweeney used to play hockey, he asked whether he wanted to try sled hockey. The two went to watch a game at a local rink.

“While the team in San Antonio was military, the other teams weren’t. They may have had a military person on them, but for the most part, they were kids that grew up with a disability,” Sweeney said. “So meeting them and learning about their stories and talking to them, it kind of just put into perspective that everything was going to be fine. There’s a way to do the things that you want to do. You’ve just got to figure it out.

“All of these individuals that I’d been meeting along the way were proof of that, because they’ve been dealing with these disabilities or learning how to live with these disabilities since they were born.”

Paralympian and gold medal winner Josh Sweeney drops the puck for a ceremonial face off between Phoenix Coyotes right wing Shane Doan, left, and Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu prior to a game in 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.
Paralympian and gold medal winner Josh Sweeney drops the puck for a ceremonial face off between Phoenix Coyotes right wing Shane Doan, left, and Minnesota Wild center Mikko Koivu prior to a game in 2014 in Glendale, Arizona.

A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY IN PARALYMPICS

Sweeney had been playing sled hockey for about a year when he decided to try out for Team USA, shortly after the Americans won gold at the 2010 Paralympic Games in Vancouver.

He had no expectations going into the tryout, saying he only hoped to “play and have fun.”

After a weekend of competition, Sweeney was called into the coach’s office.

“I remember when they called me in and they’re like, ‘Well, you have a lot of work to do, but we can tell that you know where to be and that’s hardest thing to teach.’ So they were like, ‘We’re willing to take a chance on you if you’re gonna continue to work.’”

Sweeney buckled down and put in the work, earning a spot on Team USA for the 2014 Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. Semper Fi & America’s Fund — a veteran nonprofit that cares for the nation’s critically wounded, ill and injured service members, veterans, and military families — helped provide the adaptive sports equipment Sweeney needed to pursue his dream.

He says he was never known as a goal scorer in hockey, but there’s one he will never forget. Sweeney notched the only goal in the gold-medal game against Russia, a second-period tally that provided a 1-0 victory.

“The defenseman went to pass it and I think he just fumbled it, like he didn’t realize that I was coming and caught me out of the corner of his eye and just fumbled the puck. So it came straight to me and I just went into autopilot,” Sweeney said. “I mean, honestly, just all of the training, all of the focused training on breakouts and working on one-on-one situations with the goalie kicked in, and I was lucky enough to go down and score. It was pretty wild.”

After sled hockey, Sweeney got into triathlons, and once he moved to Idaho in 2020, he picked up Nordic skiing.

Sweeney most recently competed as a member of the Nordic Ski Team for Team USA in the 2022 Beijing Paralympics.

Josh Sweeney of Nampa has competed as a Paralympian in both sled hockey and Nordic skiing. He now owns his own adaptive winter gear business called JS Adaptive Sports.
Josh Sweeney of Nampa has competed as a Paralympian in both sled hockey and Nordic skiing. He now owns his own adaptive winter gear business called JS Adaptive Sports.

A NEW CHAPTER WITH ATHLETE BUSINESS

Throughout his adaptive sports career, Sweeney has modified his equipment to improve performance, tinkering just the way he did as a kid.

He says having gear that complements the athlete is essential to success, but not always easy to find.

“I’ve done all these sports. I’ve enjoyed them,” Sweeney said. “I’ve realized that they can make or break an athlete depending on how well the equipment will fit the individual.

“I would like to be able to take the things I’ve learned along the way and use the tools that I have and the friends that I have and the resources that I have to be able to provide the equipment that’s either not in the market right now, or it can be improved upon, for individuals like myself that realize the need for good-fitting equipment.”

Josh Sweeney of Nampa started his own adaptive winter gear business called JS Adaptive Sports.
Josh Sweeney of Nampa started his own adaptive winter gear business called JS Adaptive Sports.