Dawn Macomber never imagined she'd be the first woman on the US para-bobsled team
By BRENDAN KURIE | Standard-Times (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 19, 2017
Dawn Macomber still can't believe her name is in a museum.
For the Army veteran and former Dartmouth Indian, it can still be a little disconerting when someone mentions she's the first woman on the U.S. para-bobsled team.
Just a year after picking up the sport, Macomber has set course for the 2022 Paralympic Games in Beijing, when the sport could make its debut.
"I always try something," she says. "Life is too short to say no. I spent 22 years saying I couldn't do stuff."
Steering a bobsled is akin trying to driving 50 miles an hour in a tin can.
"It's like being in a one-minute car wreck," says David Kurtz, the U.S. para-bobsled and skeleton team captain. "You have to be able to calm your body down as you carefully negotiate your way down slippery curves."
Drawing similar G-forces as the astronauts experience, a bobsled can get up to 80 mph, the equivalent of 6 Gs.
"It's the adrenaline, it's an amazing feeling," Macomber explains. "I love how everything is measured in 1/100th of a second. It really does matter how well you drive. You always have to think ahead. If you make a mistake, by that time it's too late."
For now, at least, para-bobsledding is a solo sport, with the driver starting in the sleigh and receiving a push from a mechanical arm. One of the first challenges Dawn faced was simply not passing out. She had to concentrate to force her diaphragm to keep working.
Early on, she suffered a concussion when she banged her head on the side of the sleigh.
An official bobsled or skeleton track must have at least 15 curves, all of which must be negotiated with the tiniest sliver of leeway. Yet the biggest challenge comes in those moments after you first crash.
"The real skill is being tough," says Kurtz. "There's a good chance you'll go over on your head. That's not a pleasant experience. Are you able to recover from that?"
But that's the least of Dawn's worries. She's recovered from far worse.
The last day Dawn could feel her legs was spent at a quaint bed and breakfast in Vermont.
Two decades of deterioration in her spine, and a failed surgery the year before, led to that fateful day when she stepped into the bathroom as a herniation fragment imploded in her spinal cord.
She collapsed to the floor. Paralyzed.
Even before that moment she had limited feeling in her right side, but now she couldn't feel a thing from her belly button to her toes.
"The pain was something I'd never felt before," she says. "I had a long road of recovery."
Dawn Hatchette -- her maiden name -- spent the fall of 1988 as one of three captains on the Dartmouth girls soccer team. That spring she ran track, graduated and enrolled at UMass Dartmouth -- then Southeastern Massachusetts University -- where she spent one year before enlisting in the Army at age 19.
The daughter of a Navy veteran, Kenneth, and his wife Linda, who still live in Apponagansett Village, she wanted to join the Coast Guard, but they couldn't take her for six months so she opted for the Army.
"I wanted to take advantage of the education benefits and travel the world," she says. "I just wanted to try something new."
The Army took her to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, where she worked on missile systems, and introduced her to her husband, Dave Macomber, an engineer who worked on the Patriot missile system.
But a series of unfortunate events in the Army left her with two herniated discs, two reconstructive shoulder surgeries and an abdominal surgery. Her injuries were deemed 100 percent service-connected.
Over two decades, her health deteriorated until that fateful day in Vermont, when she became a paraplegic at age 39.
"The sensation is much different than how a normal person feels things," she says. "It's not pins and needles. It's the absence. It just hangs there. It's nothing."
Most prospective Olympians start training before they can drive. Dawn began her quest last year.
But her journey to para-bobsledding history was anything but linear, and it began in her darkest days.
It's one thing not to feel your legs, Dawn notes, but what's less understood are the myriad ailments that envelop the body after a spinal cord injury. From high blood pressure and obesity to kidney and liver disease to diabetes, the list goes on.
But nothing compares to the pain.
"I know what No. 10 pain feels like," Dawn says, referring to the system nurses use to track a patient's pain. "It's very lonely. No one understands. No one can feel it."
Slowly, that unrelenting pain drained Dawn's enthusiasm for life until, one day, she asked her husband to perform euthanasia.
"It's not something I'm proud of," she says. "I was in a dark place. Mentally, I wasn't well at all. I was just so sick of pain and illness and injury. It was relentless."
But then, a tiny miracle. She regained a small amount of feeling in her legs and at the points of her hips. She decided -- despite some attempts at dissuading her from doctors and nurses -- if she could progress this much, what was stopping her from walking again?
She worked her way through the movie-montage of recovery, learning to sit, then to stand, then to sit down; graduating from a wheelchair to a walker. She now walks with braces, her gait not unlike a toddler's, although in the winter she often is constrained to a wheelchair due to fears of falling on ice.
"I fought everything to try to make myself better," she says. "Why be a conformist? I am not compliant with care. I could feel my legs, so why not try to rehab as much as I could? I just fought it."
Rehab was spent re-teaching her body its most fundamental movements, those actions the body normally does without conscious thought. She'd always been active, hiking and fishing with Dave. She considers herself outdoorsy.
So she joined Breathe Crossfit in Derry, New Hampshire, where she and her husband have lived for 13 years with their son, David Jr, who recently graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in microbiology and is finishing up a fellowship before pursuing a career as a virologist, curing epidemics and pandemics.
Soon Dawn was entering powerlifting competitions, even able-bodied ones. She owns five New Hampshire state records. In just two years, she improved her dead-lift from 15 pounds to 350.
"People are amazed I can dead lift," she says, noting she mostly uses her quadriceps since her ankles and calves are atrophied.
That led to her first Paralympic dream, entering as a powerlifter. But she was deemed too able-bodied.
A friend heard the story and suggested she try para-bobsledding during a veteran's clinic through the Adaptive Sports Foundation in Lake Placid in November 2016.
"I loved it so much," she says. "It's crazy, but yes I loved it. It was amazing."
Just like that, her bobsled career was at the starting line.
David Kurtz met Dawn in Lake Placid during the veteran's clinic, but when his phone rang shortly after he wasn't expecting her to be on the other end.
"She asked how quickly she could get up to speed with the other athletes who had been involved for several years," he recalls. "I said there was a pilot school in Latvia."
Latvia? Dawn had to look it up on a map. She'd never even left the United States. But she was serious about bobsledding, so just before Thanksgiving she found herself as the only American at the school, staying in a bed and breakfast whose owners welcomed her like a host family.
She returned to the U.S. and registered for World Cup training in Park City, Utah, in November. After a couple of junior starts from midway down the track, Dawn needed two qualifying runs from the top -- basically, runs without crashing.
"She was struggling quite a bit during the training period," Kurtz says. "She was too aggressive of a driver. Sometimes less is more. If you make a mistake, the thing is not to overcompensate."
The next day, things started looked up. During her second run she finished fourth in her heat, good for 11th overall.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "I wasn't experienced enough to know what I did then that I didn't do before. I just listened to the coaches and tried to correct what they tell you."
She left with just a few minutes of ice time -- each run is a mere minute long and you get two runs a day -- but she had done enough to qualify for the World Cup circuit.
She had become the first American woman ever to compete in a World Cup race.
Para-bobsledding has only been provisionally approved for the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing. A final decision will be announced in February or March, according to Kurtz. The sport was started in 2005 in Park City, Utah, and the U.S. team didn't form until 2011.
The sport is so new, Dawn is still working through the paperwork to determine how able-bodied she is considered.
But that hasn't stopped her from pursuing her dream with impressive vigor. She spent last January in Switzerland, Germany and Norway on the World Cup circuit, finishing between 14th and 17th in each competition.
In order to pay for these trips, she started a GoFundMe page while using credit cards and the family's tax return to fund her trip to Switzerland. Last year she spent about $13,000 traveling to World Cup competitions. This year she expects to spend $15,000.
She recently returned from a training week in Whistler, then headed to Calgary for training and a world Cup event, before jetting off to Lake Placid.
But wait, there's more.
She was recently invited to try Paralympic rowing. So far she's been in the water four times, all in the Charles River, and plans to pursue a spot in the Summer Paralympics while simultaneously continuing her para-bobsled training.
"We put Dawn in a boat and she's pretty remarkable athletically," says Marilyn Koban, military and para coordinator with Community Rowing. "She was ready to go. We're eager to see what she can do over the winter."
Koban noted Dawn's background as a powerlifter could help her in rowing.
"Some of the motions of how you unhinge your torso when you lift something, like a clean and jerk, is very similar to how a boat gets propelled by rowers," she says. "Dawn would be using her trunk and arms, and her unhinging of her trunk from the hip joint is very powerful."
While Dawn hasn't acclimated quite as quickly to rowing as she did bobsledding, she's committed herself to the sport quickly.
"I lack grace, but I'm strong and I'm dedicated," she says. "Being busy is good for my brain."
This winter she'll be training four days a week in rowing when she's not on the World Cup para-bobsled circuit.
"I think, without a doubt, I will see her competing at that (international) level," says Koban. "I can't wait to see what she does and where she goes with it. I'm excited for the possibilities."
Sometimes, in those few quiet moments in her life -- she also recently took up hunting -- Dawn will look back on those dreadful first couple of years after she became paralyzed.
The passing years have provided her with perspective.
"Now, I feel like my injury is the best thing that ever happened to me," she says. "I'm stronger than I ever was in the military. It's amazing. That just proves how bad pain is. It's not the injury itself, but the pain that accompanies an injury over the years that really, really wears on a person."
Early on in her recovery, Dawn stopped taking her antidepressants against doctor's orders. She says exercise does a better job than any pill.
"I was always pushing boundaries of what I was allowed to do," she says.
Dawn will be 51 years old in 2022, when she hopes to be competing for a Paralympic medal. Or maybe she'll end up rowing in Tokyo in 2020. Wherever she is, whatever sport she's competing in, she'll always be looking for that next boundary, ready to push at it.
"People ask me all the time: Is it scary? Are you scared? Do you know you could die? This is what I'm thinking of," she says, "I'm thinking this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that keeps on happening. If I didn't go through this devastating injury, I'd never be here. The universe throws things at us and you end up on a path you never dream possible. There's hope after illness and injury. I wish I would have known there was hope. I wouldn't have wasted as much time in despair."
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