The triumph did not last long for Nick Springer. On Sept. 16, the 23-year-old defensive stopper for the United States Paralympic wheelchair rugby team played like a champion for his country. As one of four starters, he helped the United States ward off Australia for a 53-44 victory in the decisive game of the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
The day after Springer won a gold medal, his mother, Nancy, died in New York from cancer. She was 53. According to her family, she held on long enough to hear her son’s victory over an Internet feed.
These days, Springer is back at Eckerd College in Florida studying for a degree in communications. Born and raised in Brooklyn before moving to Westchester and then Sarasota, Fla., he was a promising young hockey
player before a bout with meningitis led to amputations of his arms and legs when he was 14. But the life-threatening experience couldn’t keep him off the ice.
“I’ve been playing sports my entire life,” Springer said. “After I got hurt, I started playing something called sled hockey. I was pretty good at it, but I could only go so far because of my disability. Someone suggested I check out wheelchair rugby. I tried it and immediately realized it was something I could be good at.”
Wheelchair or quad (short for quadriplegic) rugby is usually played on a basketball court with four players a side trying to maneuver a ball over a goal line. Most well known from the 2005 documentary Murderball, it is an intense contact sport where wheelchairs often get toppled over. And that’s where Springer comes in. Without hands, he doesn’t contribute much offensively, but his burly frame and upper-body strength gives him the ability to drive opponents nuts by blocking and sometimes ramming into them.
“I just go out there blocking other players and giving them hell,” Springer said.
He picked up the game at 17 and realized within a year that he had the potential for greatness in the sport. He joined the national development team in 2005 and the Paralympic squad a year later. In 2006, he also traveled to the World Championships in New Zealand and won his first gold medal.
So no matter how much tragedy he has faced, Springer now has two medals around his neck and plenty of optimism for the future. The 2012 Paralympics in London don’t seem so far off.
“I’m the second youngest guy on the team and have no plans to retire anytime soon,” he said. “I’m enjoying this medal, but I just want to keep competing.”