Gold medalist Maj. John Arbino found inspiration in adaptive sports

Friday, June 28, 2013

On a sunny Friday afternoon, Maj. John Arbino, sitting in a modified sports wheelchair, pushed himself up a ramp to the uppermost level of a parking deck. With the bright blue sky overhead, he turned around and sped back to the bottom.

When he reached the spot where he’d started, Arbino picked up a piece of chalk – which he otherwise kept tucked away behind a pipe at the bottom of the ramp – and marked a tick on a concrete pillar to record the first of many laps he would do that day while training for the 2013 Warrior Games.

Despite having been diagnosed with secondary progressive multiple sclerosis, Arbino has prepared himself to compete in both air rifle and wheelchair racing events during the games.

A Cincinnati native, Arbino is now assigned to the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Belvoir, Va.

He is among the more than 200 wounded, ill or injured service members and veterans to compete at the games in Colorado Springs, Colo.

During the games, teams representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force and Special Operations Command will compete. Athletes from Britain are also competing.


Officer receives diagnosis

A decade ago, Arbino noticed his right leg would become weak after he ran five or six miles. He said he thought it was just a sign of getting older, or that perhaps he wasn’t training hard enough.

After MRIs, X-rays, and other tests –and after not thinking much about it at all – he received unexpected news from his doctor: a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.

Multiple sclerosis, a neurological disease that affects the central nervous system and it has no cure.

During his career, Arbino served as an Army intelligence officer, and even applied to join the Special Forces – just before his diagnosis.

He said he has enjoyed an active life that includes competitive sports, quality time with his wife and three boys, and military assignments in Germany and the United States.

But things initially changed for Arbino when he found himself needing a wheelchair to get around as a result of his multiple sclerosis.

"When they first gave me the chair, I stopped everything, thinking that was it," Arbino said.

Adding, "There are people who become disabled and they think they are stuck – and it’s true, we sit there. When I got into that chair, I was stuck. I had no idea what I was going to do."

But eventually, the once-active Army officer said he came to realize that it was his choice alone to be active or to "sit around and feel sorry" for himself. What he chose was to be active in adaptive sports.

"Adaptive sports have given me the chance to find a new purpose, to give me something to look forward to," Arbino said. "I can compete again. If it’s shooting, or if it’s racing this wheelchair, it gets me out."

And the possibility of competing in the Warrior Games, he said, have been ample motivation for him as he works on being as active as he can be.

"The Warrior Games has given me the light at the end of the tunnel," Arbino said.

Knowing he could compete again and that there were things he could still conquer, he promised himself, "I would never stop again," he said.


Abilities not disabilities

Arbino said when he considers multiple sclerosis, he hasn’t allowed it to define him as disabled. Instead, he said, the disease has allowed him to "redefine my new ability – instead of becoming a disability."

With that new ability, he said, he has found new avenues to compete and to push himself.

"It kind of just gave me a chance to redefine me as a person and that’s been life-changing," he said.

For instance, with ample experience at shooting weapons in the Army, he said, choosing to compete at the Warrior Games in air rifle shooting would be right up his alley.

"It’s an intense sport," he said, while loading a rifle with a pellet during a training session at the Fort Belvoir Archery Center.

Silence. Concentration. Then POP

Arbino hit the target.

"The sports I do – the wheelchair racing and the shooting – are complete opposites of each other," he said.

With rifle shooting, for instance, "you take a breath, you let it out, and you take the shot. With wheelchair racing, on the other hand, you’re going as fast as you can, as hard as you can."


Military career ended

Twenty years in the military have come and gone for Arbino, who started off as an enlisted soldier in 1986. He later left active duty and went to college, served in the National Guard and Army Reserve, and was eventually commissioned through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.

This year’s Warrior Games will be Arbino’s "last hurrah" before he hangs up his uniform for good. He retires in July.

"It’s bittersweet," he said.

Despite having to leave the service, Arbino said he remains grateful to the Army for the years he’s been able to serve on active duty following his diagnosis.

When the first visible signs of MS showed up in his right leg, the condition affected his ability to walk.

"But the Army gave me that time to recover," Arbino said. And eventually, "after a few months I could run again."

A subsequent Army medical evaluation came back "fit for duty," he said, "because I could pass the PT test, and the MS wasn’t noticeable."

But, Arbino said he knew that he wouldn’t be able to continue in the Army forever.

"The last few years, it’s caught up with me and I can’t run anymore and I’m in a chair, so I’m done. I understand, I got my time in and I appreciate that," he said.

Adding, "The Army’s been great to me – the people and the jobs and the places. But it’s over. It’s time to move on."

After the games, and after the Army, he said, he plans to spend time with his family and will explore continued competition in adaptive sports.

But for now, Arbino is focused on his training and said he is excited to be in his first Warrior Games.