Marine Corps veteran Tim Vixay is better and stronger than he was in 2008 when he sustained a neck and spinal cord injury in a swimming accident – a credit he owes in part to advice he received while in recovery.
The advice did not come from a likely source, such as a veteran who had endured and overcome similar circumstances. Instead, it was two sentences uttered by his mom, whom, while not able to fully understand what her son was going through, knew exactly what he needed to hear.
“When I was first injured and in the hospital, my mom told me that the unique thing about a spinal cord injury is that the worst it ever was going to be was right then,” Vixay says. “She reminded me that I was only going to get better and stronger, that it wasn’t like being diagnosed with a progressive disease.”
Vixay enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2007, leaving a good-paying job working on construction equipment in response to an overwhelming instinct to put service before self. “I felt like it was my duty to serve,” he says.
But much changed when he endured a cervical spinal cord injury as a result of a diving accident. The accident left Vixay an incomplete quadriplegic, which to him meant an uncertain future.
“I wasn’t so much depressed as I was confused,” Vixay says. “There were a lot of different transitions from the injury itself to being taken off active duty to being put in inactive retired. It was a confusing moment trying to figure out what my next move was going to be.”
But what was once confusion soon became Vixay’s greatest passion – wheelchair rugby. He spent three months doing rehabilitation at the San Diego VA Medical Center, where he learned of the sport from his recreational therapist. Just a few months after returning home to Oregon City, Vixay tried rugby for the first time.
“At that time, I was still in a power chair, so getting into a rugby chair and moving around under my own strength was liberating,” he says. “I was instantly hooked.”
In 2009, Paralyzed Veterans of America sponsored Vixay’s first trip to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Spokane, Wash. It was there that he aligned himself with a group of mentors – veterans like him, who had endured similar life-changing circumstances but had adapted and overcome.
“That was my first taste of actual competition, and from there it really took off,” he says.
The retired Marine Corps Lance Corporal went on to play quad rugby for the Portland Pounders, the Las Vegas Renegades and the Lakeshore Demolition.
While rugby has long been Vixay’s premier sport, in 2014 he took up swimming and was instantly enamored by the freedom it offered. He competed in swimming for the first time at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas and took home three gold medals.
“Getting in a pool is one of the best feelings because you’re not limited to a wheelchair,” Vixay says. “While I don’t feel disabled when I play rugby, I’m still confined to a wheelchair. But when I get in a swimming pool, I feel completely liberated.”
Adaptive sports have been a liberating force that have spilled over into other areas of Vixay’s life, including his transition from a power to a manual wheelchair, as well as his personal work with the Oscar Mike, a veteran-owned clothing company, and the Oscar Mike Foundation, where Vixay helps spread the word to disabled veterans about the opportunities in adaptive sports.
It’s that message – and the hopeful words spoken through by his mom at his lowest point – that Vixay continues to carry with him as he encourages fellow veterans and others with disabilities. With much success both behind and ahead of him, he adds one more mantra to it: “Don’t step out of your comfort zone; expand your comfort zone.”
Vixay is doing exactly that – drawing on the inspiration of his fellow Marines as reasons to never quit. When he’s struggling to go that last mile or strive to complete a tough training session, he thinks of the young Marines actively fighting. He says that is what makes him #Unstoppable.
“When I’m doing my training, I’m thinking about the 19- or 20-year-old Marines,” Vixay says. “When I have one lap to go in an eight-mile push and feel like giving up, I think about the Marine who doesn’t have that option.”