September 5, 2016 –
The 2016 Paralympics are in full swing in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, and hopefuls from all over the world are turning out to represent their country.
However, few have the distinction of representing their country as both an Olympian and a member of the United States Military.
2nd Lt. David Garza, 23, S6 officer, 314th Military Intelligence Battalion, San Diego, Calif. is heading to the Paralympics to represent the USA on the soccer pitch, and the journey was anything but easy.
“Soccer was the only sport I didn’t want to play,” Garza said with a laugh, describing himself as ‘Americanized,’ he spent his youth playing baseball and football.
Once he found himself trying it out, he quickly fell in love with the game and found it the only game he wanted to play.
“I love the running and the beauty of the game,” he said. “People take for granted what these athletes can do with their feet."
Garza began playing soccer when he was seven, and at the age of fifteen he was invited to scrimmage with the Olympic team, he said. Living in San Diego, he was right next to the Olympic Training Center, and the coach saw potential in his game.
However, tragedy nearly ended his soccer career in May of 2012. A car accident put Garza in a coma for over a month, and doctors said he’d never walk again.
“I felt lost and confused after the accident,” Garza said. “I had a hard time relating to people and connecting with anyone.”
Garza threw himself at his physical therapy and defied doctor’s predictions. Not only was he walking again, but walking into a recruiting office. If he couldn’t represent his country on the pitch, he’d serve it instead.
In December of 2013, Garza passed his first Physical Training test and was enlisted in the Army Reserve.
But soccer wasn’t that easy to give up.
Garza said he was asked to ref at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego and found himself falling in love with the sport all over again. Once his work on the field showed the accident didn’t slow him down, he was invited to join the Olympic Development Program.
Then one of the biggest steps in his Olympic career came when he was invited to travel with the team to a tournament in Spain.
“I couldn’t play in any games only practice, but it was a dream come true just to be invited,” Garza said. The roster was set for months before, but Garza was happy to travel and help the team in any way he could.
A full year passed between coma and Spain, and Garza is still pushing to be his best.
“They just had the World Cup down there (in Rio)” Garza said. “It’s like a holy land for soccer.”
As the team heads down to the games in early September, Garza is wearing a Co-captain patch on his uniform. He cites the people in his life and the military for getting him this far.
“I have to thank my Mother Nancy, Father Israel, and little brother Robert, MSG Jovanny Jones, among many others. I wouldn’t be here without them,” he said with pride.
“Stuart Sharp (Men’s soccer head coach) has been a great leader and father figure,” Garza said. Sharp is originally from Glasgow, Scotland and the team likes to joke about how hard it is to understand him when he gets excited.
Garza’s Army training and leadership development has benefited him as well.
“You must have effective communication, and taking initiative is huge in every game,” he said. “You can’t always rely on your teammates alone, but you also have to trust they will be there when needed.”
Not to say there isn’t a disconnect between himself and many of his teammates. There are three veterans on the Olympic team, and many experiences can’t be understood by civilians.
“Last summer, I spent three weeks in England staying at a five-star hotel/Olympic training center. Then one week later I was in the middle of nowhere at Ft. Knox (Ky.) sleeping on the ground cuddled up with my rifle,” he says with a laugh.
Garza is also feeling a lot of pressure going into the games, both because he’s the youngest co-captain, but also the only Latino on the team. However, he says it’s only pushing him harder to be his best.
“I like having the pressure,” he said. “Being able to excel under pressure has always been a key factor to how I like to play in any game"
For now, Garza says he wants to stay on the Olympic team. He has potential to have a long/successful career in this program.
“This can’t always be the answer,” he says about the Olympic team. “Olympic athletes do it for the love of the game and compete for the pride of your country,” which means the pay isn’t something you can live indefinitely on.
“There are leagues popping up everywhere,” he said. He and another teammate have been looking at clubs in England, but for right now there’s no set plans. Just taking it day by day.
“The best advice I can offer to someone that I learned from my car accident is to value their own time, you never know when your time on Earth will end. Love life with no regrets because telling yourself you should have, could have or would have ringing in your head is the hardest thing to live with."