Army veteran Laura Schwanger was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1982. For about two years she really didn’t know what to do with herself, and was having trouble living with her new illness. But then she fell in love with adaptive sports, particularly track and field. Suddenly, she had a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
When friends invited her to attend the Boston Marathon and she saw competitors cross the line in wheelchairs, “I knew that was what I wanted to do,” she says.
She was a natural. Just a few years after her MS diagnosis, she was named to Team USA in track and field, and won four gold medals in the Paralympics. She went on to other Paralympic Games, bringing home multiple silver and bronze medals. “It was a good time to be a woman with a disability as adaptive sports were evolving and there were a lot of opportunities,” she says.
After being a star on the Games circuit, she became a star in the classroom, earning her Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. She began working with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as those who were, like her, adjusting to life with a disability.
And then life threw her another challenge.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I realized I didn’t want to wait for the next diagnosis to question why I hadn’t done the things I wanted to do,” Laura says.
Even though she was “weaker than I ever had been in my life,” she found a new passion – rowing. Before long she was back on the Paralympic stage, winning a bronze medal for rowing in the 2008 Games.
“I have gold medals from past Paralympics, but that bronze medal in rowing probably means the most to me,” Laura says. “I was so weak after my radiation treatments, but once I finished, I started on an exercise program, and eight weeks later I was invited to start rowing. Up until then, everything had been about breast cancer.”
Laura’s persistence in finding new pursuits in life shows how important it is to focus on what you can do, instead of what you cannot do. Her can-do attitude and hopeful spirit has taken her in directions she never expected. “When I was diagnosed with MS, I had no idea I’d eventually be trading in my fatigues for the USA uniform,” she says.
Laura remains thankful for the support of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I have received the benefits of the work of Paralyzed Veterans of America, particularly the coordinated care at the VA that has supported my disease and my cancer,” Laura says.
“Paralyzed Veterans also was instrumental in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which has made my life so much easier and accessible.”
Now living in Florida, Laura continues to row and mentor others through adaptive sports. She also loves to ride her motorcycle and has even joined a group of women on a 1,400-mile motorcycle ride to Wisconsin.
Laura hopes other veterans will come to the realization that she had – that it is possible to do more than merely exist following a disability. “Each day is a gift,” she says. “The alternative is to curl up in a hole or to die, but it’s a gift that we are still here. The front door may have closed, but other doors might have opened, and joy can be found in opening those alternate doors that lead to something new you can succeed in.”