Paralympian Daniel McCoy: My Only Limitations Are Those I Impose on Myself

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Daniel Frank McCoy is a native of Pittsburgh, a 2012 graduate of Fox Chapel High School and a student at the University of Pittsburgh. Dan was born with Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus.

“Spina Bifida means that my spine didn’t develop properly in utero. As a result, I have partial paralysis from my waist down. I walk short distances with leg braces and use a wheelchair for long distances. Hydrocephalus means that spinal fluid doesn’t properly drain from my brain. To control this, I have a ventricular shunt. I’ve actually had 9 ventricular shunts because of failures and surgeries to replace. Although my disabilities are significant, I’ve tried to make the most out of my abilities and not focus on the disabilities. My personal motto is ‘My only limitations are those I impose on myself.’"

At the age of six, Dan began playing sled hockey, an adaptive form of ice hockey for individuals with physical disabilities. He is currently the captain of the Pittsburgh Mighty Penguins Adult Sled team and a 5-time member of the U.S. Men’s National Sled Hockey Team.  At the age of 16, Dan was selected to the U.S. Men’s National Sled Hockey Team after playing two years on the U.S. Junior Sled Hockey Team. Dan was named 2010 Rookie of the Year. The team travels nationally and internationally for competitions. In the five years on the team, Dan has traveled throughout the U.S., Canada, Japan, Norway, South Korea, and Russia.  In 2014, Dan was selected as a member of the Paralympic Sled Hockey Team and traveled to Sochi, Russia in March of that year to compete in the Paralympic games. Dan had two assists and was a +3 in the tournament in which Team USA went on to win the Gold Medal with a 1-0 win over the host team Russia. 

Recently, Dan played for the U.S. National Team in the 2015 World Sledge Hockey Championships in Buffalo. Daniel scored a goal in the gold medal game in which the U.S. defeated Canada by a score of 3-0. In addition to sled hockey, Dan enjoys handcycling, playing drums, and guitar. 

Read up on his interview below on his studies, hockey, and career goals!

Paralympian Daniel McCoy: My Only Limitations Are Those I Impose on Myself

When and how did you get your start in hockey? Did you have any great mentors?

I was 5 years old when I was first introduced to sled hockey, an adaptive form of ice hockey.

Sled Hockey is for individuals with physical disabilities. Rather than stand up on skates, sled hockey players sit in a sled with their legs out front. While strapped into the sled, sled hockey players use two mini-hockey sticks with ice picks on one end of each stick to propel themselves on the ice. The other end of each stick is used to handle the puck. 

Sled hockey is played exactly like ice hockey with a few additional penalties. At first, I didn’t care for the amount of equipment I needed to wear or the cold temperatures when I was on the rink. I loved the game of hockey, though. I would go to my older brother’s games and, face pressed up against the glass, would watch every movement and every play. Something clicked when I was about 7 years old when I realized that playing sled hockey was the same as ice hockey. The equipment and the cold no longer bothered me. I couldn’t wait until 3:00PM on Thursday afternoons. That was our once a week practice slot.

By the time I was 8 years old, I was hooked on the sport. In fact, while traveling in Canada for one of my older brother’s hockey tournaments, I caught the 2002 Paralympic Sled Hockey gold medal game on TV. That year, the Paralympics were in Salt Lake City, UT. I watched as the underdog US Men’s National Team won the Gold Medal. I looked at my family and said, “I want to go to the Paralympics and win a Gold Medal.” At the time, I had no clue of how hard it would be to make that dream come true. My parents and brother have been my biggest supporters throughout the years. When I thought there was no way I could achieve my goal, they were there to motivate me and keep me from giving up on myself.

My brother, Andrew, who is 3 years older than me, is my mentor. He was the one I watched so closely play hockey when I was younger. He, along with my dad, was the one that would give me pointers and skate with me. Never once did he feel slighted because of our family focused on my dream of going to the Paralympics. In fact, during his first year of medical school, he flew over to Sochi, Russia just to watch me play in the Gold Medal game. Literally, he was there for just 3 days. Just because he wanted to be there for me – win or lose.

Paralympian Daniel McCoy: My Only Limitations Are Those I Impose on Myself

How did you get recruited to be a part of the Olympics in Sochi? Any advice for people out there trying to figure out the Olympic arena? What was your experience like?

Sled hockey at a National or Paralympic level is very competitive. Tryouts are held once a year in July and, regardless if you made a team the prior year, there is no guarantee you will make the team at tryouts. I was 14 years old when I made the U.S. Development Sled Hockey team. To be on the Development team, players had to be independent. Players had to be able to travel alone, carry their own gear, get themselves on and off the ice, etc. Being a part of the Development team made me independent and probably more mature for my age at the time, but it was great preparation for the U.S. Men’s National Sled Hockey team. I made the U.S. Men’s National Team when I was 16. I have had to try out every year to stay on the team. This past July, I made the 
National team for the 6th time. Each year it gets tougher and tougher.

If people are trying to figure out how to get into the Paralympic arena, the first step is to contact the U.S. Paralympics Organization – www.teamusa.org/us-paralympics. They have leaders driving all of the various Paralympics sports available for participation. Reaching that level isn’t easy, though. Players are competing against individuals who have been either playing the sport since a very young age or are wounded warriors who played the sport prior to disability and/or are now using the sport in rehabilitation. Competition is tough. As much as you want to achieve your dream, the guy or girl next to you wants to achieve their dream as much or more.

This is why the experience of participating at a Paralympic level is the greatest experience and toughest, most stressful challenge you can ever face. There are times when pressure is extremely tough. But, it’s these times that make a team victory or a clutch goal so much sweeter. The experiences that I have had made me who I am today - and not just as an athlete but as a person. My experiences have shaped my character.

Why did you choose the University of Pittsburgh? What are you studying?

I love Pittsburgh and, even though I’m in a wheelchair and the hills are crazy, I love Pitt’s campus. A lot of people thought I was nuts applying to main campus when Pitt’s satellite campuses are much more accessible. There are many cold, dark, winter nights where I question my decision but there is nothing like rolling up Fifth Avenue and seeing the Cathedral against a gorgeous blue sky.

I’m currently working on an undergraduate Communications major at the University of Pittsburgh. I graduated from Fox Chapel High School in 2012 and have juggled and struggled trying to find balance between my college education and playing on the U.S. Men’s National Sled Hockey team. Because of the monthly travel commitments for the National team, I have missed a lot of classes over the past couple of years. The professors have been great but the travel has limited my ability to take courses requiring labs. Ultimately, my goal is to get a Master’s degree in Sports Medicine either in adaptive sports, physical fitness or research. Although I should be in my senior year of undergrad, limiting classes my sophomore year to train for the Paralympics has set be back a year. My goal is to finish up my undergrad at Pitt in the spring of 2017.

Paralympian Daniel McCoy: My Only Limitations Are Those I Impose on Myself

Have you thought about becoming a professional hockey player? What can you see yourself doing professionally?

I wish! Sadly, there is no professional sled hockey league. As a member of the National team, I am playing at the highest level of sled hockey out there. Unfortunately, although we get travel stipends and such, we aren’t salaried to be on the National team.

I’m still working out what I want to do professionally. That is, what I can be paid to do. I heard it said that if you do what you love, the money will follow. Well, we shall see. What I love is helping others with disabilities realize that there are no limitations to their dreams and goals. I love helping young players just starting out in sled hockey to believe that they can work hard and get good at a sport. I love seeing them transform both emotionally and physically through participating in a sport. So, whatever I do professionally, I want it to be something that helps others improve their lives.

As someone who wants to be an advocate for people with disabilities, any advice on navigating the college‐life process? Is there anything you wish you would’ve known?

I’m probably not the best to give advice on college-life. Because of my travel schedule, I have had to straddle being a traveling athlete with college life. I really haven’t had a typical college life experience. The first couple of years at Pitt didn’t feel like I was in college because I had the pressure of the upcoming Paralympics to worry about. I couldn’t let myself go into the college-life. I missed a lot of football games and weekend events because of traveling. This year on the National team shouldn’t involve as much travel as in the past. I’m hoping to enjoy more of Pitt’s college-life by socializing more. Being in a wheelchair, the one thing I wish I had known was how far up cardiac hill Sutherland Hall is. Had I known, I probably would have not lived there freshman year. Rolling up and down cardiac hill was a killer although it kept me in great shape. Learning to traverse the hill through buildings helped out a lot. So, I guess that is advice I could pass on to people with disabilities thinking about coming to Pitt – learn the short cuts to get around campus!

What are your career goals? What are your hopes and dreams?

My career goals are to be able to do something that allows me to share my experiences with others (with or without disabilities) to help them better themselves both physically and emotionally. I’m still on my own personal journey to figure out what that career will be. I hope that as I finish my undergraduate career, move on to a Master’s in Sports Medicine that I will find clarity in a career.

Paralympian Daniel McCoy: My Only Limitations Are Those I Impose on Myself

Where in the world have you traveled? Do you feel like your travels have changed you? Inspired you?

I’ve travelled throughout the United States and Canada from when I was on the U.S. Development team through being on the National team. My first truly international trip was in 2011. The National team was playing a 4-team tournament in Nagano Japan. Along with the U.S. and Japan, players from Norway and Canada were participating. This was in March of 2011. Yep, we were there at the same time as the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami.

In fact, we were on the ice in Nagano when the earthquake hit. I remember sitting in my sled and sliding involuntarily on the ice. I looked up at the center score board hanging from the ceiling and it was swaying. Surreal. Because Nagano was a couple hundred miles from the epicenter, no damage occurred but Nagano had a 6.6 aftershock quake 4 days later that woke all of us out of bed. While we were there, we didn’t realize how precarious our situation was given the nuclear plant meltdown. Reading about all of the events when I got home was sobering.

My second major international trip was to Norway in 2012. It was a great experience. The country was beautiful and the people friendly. We won the World Sled Hockey Championship in Hamar, Norway. That was my first gold medal with the team.

My third international trip was to Goyang, South Korea in 2013. It was also a great experience but an eye opener as well. We stayed in Seoul and traveled about 30 minutes to the rink every day. Seoul was incredibly crowded with people and not very accessible. The traffic was unbelievable. South Korea raised my awareness of how fortunate we – individuals with disabilities - are in the United States to have the accessibility that we have. I know there are always ways to improve on this, but my eyes were opened in South Korea when many of our players, who couldn’t walk, had to crawl up and down subway steps pulling their wheelchairs because the subway system wasn’t accessible. The curb cutouts were basically metal sheets that were at such a steep angle, we were almost tossed out of our chairs every time we used one. Goyang is only about 30 miles from the DMZ between North and South Korea. We weren’t sure we were going to even make this trip because of the trouble brewing between the two countries.

The 2014 Paralympics Games were held in Sochi, Russia. What an experience that was! Leading up to the games, media story after media story was about how unprepared the Sochi venues were for the games. Our travel to get to Sochi involved traveling from Denver to DC to Germany and finally Sochi. The U.S. Olympic/Paralympic Organization took such good care of us all along the way. The Paralympic Village was beautiful, the food was great, and the venues were perfect. All the news we heard about the lack of preparation were either mis-stated or resolved by the time the Paralympics started. The Paralympics start two weeks after the Olympics finish.

Traveling has certainly changed me. Being able to represent the United States on such a world stage is humbling. I’ve met amazing men and women from across the world with significant disabilities that have persevered without the benefits of healthcare and opportunities in the United States.

Tell us a favorite memory that you have from your travels, hockey, and/or college life?

I don’t know if I can pick one. I have had so many memories over the years, from those traveling with my family on some amazing vacations to Florida or Aruba just to relax to those spent in British Columbia or Sitka, Alaska fishing to the amazing international experiences I’ve had competing with the National/Paralympic Sled Hockey team. Probably one of my favorite memories fishing was being there when my brother hooked and landed a 165lb halibut in Alaska.

My favorite memory in sled hockey has happened 3 times! That memory is when I was singing (shouting) the National Anthem with my teammates after winning Paralympic Gold and 2 World
Championships and looking up in the stands to see my family singing along.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I’m an athlete at heart. Besides playing sled hockey, I very much enjoy handcycling and adaptive kayaking (also know as paracanoe in the Paralympics). I enjoy playing the drums and have been slowly teaching myself how to play guitar. I travel to Alaska or British Columbia almost yearly since I was ten to go deep sea fishing for salmon and halibut.

I’ve been extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to experience so much in my almost 22 years of life. I welcome the opportunity to speak to groups about my experiences, because I’m living proof that dreams and miracles can happen with hard work and perseverance.

 

 

Stasia Lopez is the Global Education Editor for Wandering Educators and is also a Career Consultant at the University of Pittsburgh. She graduated with her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Student Affairs from Western Michigan University and earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management from Robert Morris University. Stasia is passionate about international education, travel,  and loves working on a college campus. She’s lived in four different U.S. states (Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania) and also studied and lived abroad in Rome, Italy. Stasia lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, Fernando.

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Daniel McCoy

 

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