This story, I’m sure, is one of many told by individuals who not only astonished others but, more importantly, themselves. My name is Anthony Culmone and 17 years ago I was born with a condition known as spina bifida. Until the age of 11 years, my disability was manageable and not very apparent to my peers except for my inability to walk long distances and run as fast as my friends. By age 12, I began to have many unexplained leg breaks that did not heal properly and I could only move around by wheelchair by the time I was 15. At that time in my life, managing severe pain was a full time job. My orthopedic surgeon at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital recommended a series of surgical procedures that could potentially improve my condition.
In February of 2014, I underwent 7 surgeries in one day at SickKids Hospital and shortly after I was transferred to Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital where I stayed for 3 months. While there I attended daily rehab treatments, high school, and other extracurricular activities. I am forever grateful for the medical team at Holland Bloorview.
While attending school at Holland Bloorview, they assembled the students in the gym to hear a motivational speaker, Paul Rosen. He spoke of a time when he battled self-pity and self-doubt. Paul explained how he overcame many emotional and physical obstacles by throwing himself into the sport of sledge hockey. He then explained how he went on to become a gold medalist for the Canadian Sledge Hockey Team. In that moment, I could relate to Paul on so many levels and I was motivated to throw myself whole heartedly into the sport. After Paul’s presentation, I leaned over to my mother who was seated next to me and whispered, “as soon as I’m able to sit in a sled, I will be playing sledge hockey.”
While I was recovering from extensive surgery, my parents were very reluctant to talk or hear about my plans of joining sledge hockey as their priorities were for me to make a full recovery. Seven months after my surgeries, I joined the Mississauga Cruisers Sledge Hockey Team. I took it upon myself to contact the closest sledge hockey organization, contacting Ken Hall, Head Coach of the Mississauga Cruisers. Ken patiently answered all my questions and suggested that I start by coming out to their practice and giving the sport a try, “no pressure”, he assured me. He met my parents and me at the arena and proceeded to demonstrate how to use a sled. He was so laid back and supportive and assured me that the players on his team were all playing at different hockey skill levels. They all needed individual accommodations to play the sport. Ken made it very clear I was not that special.
He also informed me that teams were organized according to the level of players’ ability, not only their age. Needless to say, my year on the Cruisers was a blast! I met an amazing group of people and challenged myself physically and mentally. That summer, I went to the University of Western Ontario for hockey camp, where I received extensive training to further develop my skills as a sledge hockey player. As my parents watched my progression and initiative they became even more supportive of my decision to pursue sledge hockey and have enabled me to be the player that I am today. Without their help none of this would be possible. In the fall of 2015, I was invited to try out for Team Ontario! I never once thought that this would be a possibility and found myself in utter disbelief.
Today, I am currently playing with Team Ontario and find myself continuously pinching myself to make sure that it’s real. I won’t deny it; I’m a rookie and have a long road of hard work ahead of me. There are times when I’m on the ice with some of Canada’s greatest sledge hockey players and I know that I’ve been given the chance of a lifetime. If you have the smallest desire to get into a sledge, then hop on the ice and give it a try! I can assure anyone who is willing to take the risk that the sledge hockey community is very welcoming and encouraging and they are a fantastic circle of people that are waiting to inspire the next kid that decides to take the chance! Throughout my journey I have come to the cliché realization that anything is possible if you put your mind to it and the only person stopping you from trying is yourself.