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Ex-Army sergeant eager to give back as Paralympics begin in Sochi

SAN ANTONIO — Rico Roman had just finished practice at the Northwoods Ice Center when the onslaught began.

An eager group of fans approached him in the lobby.

“Can I get a picture?” they asked in unison, whipping out their cell phones.

Roman flashed his wide smile and just as eagerly obliged.

Such scenes have not been uncommon recently for Roman and fellow San Antonio athletes Jen Lee and Josh Sweeney, all of whom have become celebrities as members of the USA sled hockey team competing in the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

The games, which begin Friday, come almost two weeks after the closing of the Winter Olympics. Almost 700 athletes from 45 countries are participating, 77 from the United States.

Team USA has medaled in the each of the last three Winter Paralympics in sled hockey.

“It's a great feeling to wear the uniform of the red, white and blue again,” said Roman, 33, a retired Army staff sergeant who lost his left leg just above the knee when an improvised explosive device detonated during his third tour of duty in Iraq in 2007.

“I don't think it's really going to hit me until we're on that ice, competing for that gold.”

Roman, Lee and Sweeney, all current or retired military, are single- or double-amputees who were treated at the Center for Intrepid at Brooke Army Medical Center. All also are members of the Rampage sled hockey team.

A native of Portland, Ore., Roman played football and wrestled in high school. Hockey was never even on his radar.

But after learning to walk on a prosthetic leg and trying his hand at “hand-cycling” with a specialized bike for disabled riders, he was introduced to sled hockey. He took to it right away.

“It's like football on ice,” he said.

In sled hockey, players strap themselves into a customized “bucket” atop an aluminum frame mounted on two skate blades. They propel themselves by digging the spiked ends of sawed-off hockey sticks into the ice. They use the same sticks to shoot the puck.

Otherwise, it's regular hockey.

While playing with the Rampage sled hockey team, coach Lonnie Hannah — noting Roman's skills and determination — suggested he try out for the U.S. Paralympic team headed for the 2010 Vancouver Games.

Although Roman failed to make the team — he had only eight months of experience — he persevered, trained harder and made the national team.

He appreciates the interest from fans and their support. Sponsors are sending his wife and two children to Russia to see him compete.

The U.S. team recently was he subject of a PBS documentary, “Ice Warriors,” increasing their exposure.

That's why, for Roman, posing for pictures or signing autographs is all in a day's work.

“Anything I can do to give back to the people who have supported me, I'll do,” he said.

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