Baby steps may lead to Paralympics for local man

Navy vet paralyzed in stateside accident now an accomplished rower

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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U.S. Navy veteran Anthony Davis escaped injury during 18 months on duty in the Middle East only to become paralyzed after he returned to the United States.

Three weeks before his discharge, Davis broke his back in a traffic accident on Interstate 5 in California on his way home to Vancouver. Doctors told him he would never walk again.

That didn’t stop him. Six years later, the 29-year-old is a contender for the Paralympic Games to be held at the 2012 Olympics in London. Davis, who never rowed before 2009, qualified for the Paralympic/Adaptive National rowing team at trials June 29 at Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J.

He will represent the United States at the August world championship in Slovenia. That could lead up to the Paralympic Games at the 2012 Olympics in London.

“It was awesome,” he said.

Davis joined the Navy after graduation in 2000 from La Center High School, where he played football and baseball. War didn’t seem imminent at the time, and the Navy offered travel abroad and help paying for college. He was trained as a rescue swimmer and submarine hunter. With 9/11, things changed. Davis was deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 and then, to Iraq. He spent 18 months altogether in both countries.

Three weeks short of his discharge in August 2005, he and his friends were driving a Jeep up Interstate 5 through California to go home to Vancouver. Davis was asleep in the backseat when the vehicle rolled multiple times on the freeway. He was ejected from the window in a fetal position and landed on his spine on the ground. The impact broke his back, ribs and collar bone and paralyzed him from the waist down.

He spent four months at a veteran’s hospital in Seattle, where doctors informed him he would never walk again. Then, his wife, who was pregnant with their son, filed for legal separation while he was still in the hospital — and later, divorce.

For more than a year, Davis was immobile and struggled with depression. He lived with his grandmother in La Center because her house was wheelchair accessible.

“I didn’t do anything except hang out with friends,” he said. “Before, I was athletic. Now, I couldn’t move and had to take my wheelchair wherever I went. I was not happy. I decided I didn’t want to be like that.”

He began to go to the gym daily to build strength in his back. His son Ethan served as an inspiration and a lesson on how to take baby steps toward his goal of walking again. Davis would closely observe Ethan as the tyke was learning to walk and would imitate his movements.

“My son taught me how to walk,” Davis said. “I couldn’t control my ankles, so I would just throw my feet forward.” Slowly, Davis worked up to a walker and, later, a cane.

“The nerves started growing back, and I started experiencing pain I could never imagine,” he said. “But I was getting stronger every day.”

Soon, he was walking unassisted. He got back into sports and coached football at La Center High School.

His first experience rowing was at a winter sports camp in 2009 for disabled veterans in Aspen, Colo. The grand prize for the camp’s rowing competition was a shirt.

“It was a nice shirt,” Davis said. “I thought, ‘I’ll try it.’”

Davis sat down at the rowing machine and sailed past his competitors, covering 500 meters in two minutes.

“I guess that was really fast, but I just wanted the shirt,” he said.

An hour later, he received an invitation to a military adaptive sports clinic in Fort Lewis, where he rowed for the first time on water.

“I had no idea what to do,” he recounted. “I was flying through the water. I felt like I could run again.”

He found a coach in Vancouver to help him hone his skills. He rowed three times a week on Vancouver Lake, battling severe pain in his body but building strength as well. He went to competitions around the country.

In April, USRowing invited him to train in Oklahoma City, the official Paralympic training site for rowing. He has spent the past three months in Oklahoma City preparing for the national trials and practicing morning and night. He returned to Vancouver June 30 to spend the July Fourth weekend his son, now 5. His practice regimen for the world championship resumed this week in Oklahoma City.

Davis said after he wins all the rowing competitions he can, he would like to go on to be a public speaker.

“I hope people who hear my story realize they can do whatever they want with hard work,” he said. “God gave me a second chance, but I had to work hard.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551, paris.achen@columbian.com, Twitter@Col_Trends, www.Facebook.com/#!/pages/Paris-Achen