An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

NEWS | March 29, 2024

Adaptive sports have molded our family.

By MaryTherese Griffin Army Recovery Care Program

April is adaptive sports month, and we can't think of a better way to explain the importance than talking with retired Army Staff Sgt Joel Rodriguez and his wife, Liannie of Tampa, Florida. The Rodríguez family is no stranger to the public eye because of adaptive sports. It all started with a simple act most people do but pray for a safe outcome. Unfortunately for Joel Rodriguez, his life changed forever.

It was 2014, and Joel was with Liannie in the car when he swerved to avoid hitting an animal. Their car rolled, and Joel suffered a broken neck, leaving him paralyzed. For the always-athletic Soldier, the weeks after his accident were a severe reality check. "Basketball was always my sport of choice- I played able-bodied basketball my whole life. I thought I could play wheelchair basketball – I was very naive. I thought ok, I can move my arms, I am a paraplegic not a quadriplegic," said Joel.

His PTs told him because he didn't have use of his fingers and hands, he would not qualify for wheelchair basketball but he did qualify for wheelchair rugby. Rodriguez learned he is a quadriplegic. Then he went to watch a wheelchair rugby match. "I remember when I first saw it- I was in a neck brace and a power chair- I could barely move my arms, and I thought, Oh, I AM SO PLAYING THIS! And Liannie was like, uh, NO, YOU ARE NOT!" he laughed.

He was two weeks post-accident, and Liannie had a lot to say. "I was like, you just broke your neck! But we were at physical therapy, and his therapists caught his personality right away, and they told him wheelchair rugby is definitely going to be your sport," said Liannie.

Liannie was still in disbelief at what she was hearing. "I said you still have a neck brace on and can't even push the chair. What are you talking about, Joel? But sure enough—here we are."
Ten years later, the Rodriguezs explained how adaptive sports changed their lives. Joel as a player and coach and Liannie, believe it or not, as a wheelchair mechanic. "Even when he wanted to play, I never thought I would be a wheelchair mechanic. I was just thrown into this, but truly, it's fun. I love it- it brings me just as much joy to be on the side helping."

Joel, who now plays professionally for USA Rugby, says that playing on Team Army and Team US has been more than medals and competition. "Adaptive sports give you purpose, and it will give you a community to fall back on when you have rough days," said the multi-medal athlete.

"It has molded our family. Our life revolves around it," said Liannie, whose husband now coaches wheelchair rugby for Team Army.

"Our life revolves around sports in general. My son, for example, is playing basketball now and following in my footsteps. It's a family affair when we go see him play, and it's a family affair when they come to watch me compete and coach," said Joel.

Learning to adapt in life through adaptive sports is something the Rodriguezs hang their hat on and share. "It sets so much goodness in our lives, especially with parenting. We feel like there are so many things we do as parents because we are an adaptive sports family. Discipline is key," said Liannie.

"We were at a basketball camp for my son. It was over 100 degrees outside, and he did all five days with a smile on his face and even came home with a few trophies," said Joel, beaming with pride over his son's dedication at such a young age.
Never wanting to disappear as a person, Joel wanted to evolve however he could with his new normal. He stresses that anyone with a change in life should consider adaptive sports.
"Even if you are not an athlete, getting involved in any adaptive sport or adaptive venue is super beneficial because it puts you in a community. It puts you around people with similar injuries and mindsets. It's just like going to Warrior Games—what an atmosphere! The camaraderie and friendships make adaptive sports fully worth it," said Joel.