Travis is a handsome guy. He has a thick head of dishwater blond hair, deep set eyes, a chiseled chin and a great physique. His arms are huge and rock solid, his shoulders broad, his waist whittled. He's also very accomplished. At 24 he's just bought his first home, has a nice career as an actuary for a big company, and has two gold medals, won playing basketball for Team Canada at the Sydney and Athens Para-Olympics, to his name which explains the big muscles.
"My goal was to make the national team by '98, and I did. And that lead me to Sydney. Sydney was just the most jaw dropping, tear jerking, amazing experience of my life. I can argue that Athens may have topped it or may have gotten close, but Sydney was just incredible.
"In the world of disabled sports, obviously you don't get the publicity you get or the marketability you get for able bodied sports. So, our crowds when we play here or in Canada are friends and family, as well as sometimes you get a few other people. But, our opening ceremonies for the Para-Olympics, which is just right after the Olympics, had 120,000 people. That would be the first part of the experience, to walk out there. You're [waiting] for eight hours just to do the opening ceremonies. And you get out there, and [I'm] feeling kind o' cocky. I'm feeling kind o' excited, smiling. 'I'm here. This is awesome!' But then, when you get out there, you see 120,00 people cheering for you as they announce Team Canada and the first thing you do is cry. And then, for the next five minutes, you're just on cloud two million. That walk around that track was unreal.
"Our gold medal game had about 13 or 14,000 people [watching it]. To play in front of that many people and have that support was an experience I hadn't had before. I didn't think it was possible."
Travis sees life and all it's myriad aspects as a journey, or a working through. His means is to work hard because his purpose is to glorify God in all he puts his hands to. If his potential was to go to University of Illinois, then that's where he needed to go, never mind the obstacles in his way. When he played the classical alto-saxophone, he practiced four hours a day. He is dedicated to excellence and motivated by love and gratitude towards the God who created him. If Travis had been born physically perfect and had lived a charmed life, his attitude would not be exceptional, but that is not the case.
He was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba on January 16, 1980 to a father who was a second generation, Lutheran pastor and a mother who taught piano. He was, inexplicably, born completely missing his left leg and with only half his right leg.
"The doctors could not give any explanation or reason why. It was just God's will. That's the best way to say it because there was no actual physical ailment or anything like that that went on."
When I ask him to describe his family he swells with pride and it is apparent that he is anchored therein and finds those relationships to be a deep reservoir of strength and comfort to draw from.
"It was very fortunate to be born into a loving, supportive, Christian home where we had those morals very much installed in our every day lives right from the get go. My mom [was] the most loving, supportive, amazing mother ever. My sister and I have just been best friends. And right now she is my life partner, outside of a marriage. [She is] my best friend I could ever imagine for. We're so similar in terms of our goofiness, our ability to have fun, scream, yell and cry in the car as we listen to music. Our Christian walks are in a very similar stage. Emotionally, we lean on each other. We need each other."
His early childhood was idyllic and filled with wonder. If he was sad at all it was because he couldn't move around as quickly as other children. He spent his days running around on whatever bikes or chairs he had at the time, and loved to be outdoors. In fact, he spent most of his free time outside. He would go out to the woods every night after school and build forts in the trees. He remembers spending up to four hours a night dragging wood to his fort and feeling completely satisfied and hungry to do more. In the winter, he'd make snow quinzies. With all the snow they got in Winnipeg, he could pile up a huge mound of snow. And then he'd pour water on it and ice it out. After that he'd dig out the inside and light a fire. All in all it was about a week long process, but the reward for his effort was another fort, this time made of ice. Travis seemed to relish space all his own as a child and the great expanse underneath the boundless sky.
When he was in about the fourth grade, he sat in a chair for the first time and took to it like a fish to water. Up until then, he'd been walking on his one shortened right leg and a prosthetic left leg. He could walk without crutches but the process was laborious and slow.
"But for me it wasn't worth it to walk like everyone else. It wasn't worth the loss of momentum. I was always somebody who wanted to get up and go, get up and go, and I still suffer from that. Walking was just too slow for me.
"When I first sat in a sports chair [and experienced] how quick it was, and how much more freedom it gave me, I gave the legs up right away. It actually ended up being quite a kerfuffle because the school system and social workers were very much against me going in the chair a hundred percent because they thought that one day down the line I'd want to be able to walk again".
It was his stubborn insistence to remain in a chair that lead to his involvement and passion for wheelchair basketball and ultimately his two gold medals. But about the same time he decided to forsake walking in favor of a chair another significant development occurred in his childhood, this time heartbreaking. At the age of twelve, Travis lost his father to heart cancer.
"My father was probably one of the healthiest people you'd meet. Ninety percent of his food came from his garden and he had a very extensive garden. We were not the family to go to Wendy's or McDonald's. My mother made juices twice a day. He was very healthy, very fit. The doctors could find no medical reason for it."
I asked him how he was able to still trust God, how he could get past the pain.
"It hurts and it continues to hurt. It hurts a lot. But he taught me very quickly and I learned very quickly that the Lord just had another purpose for him in His kingdom. And as part of my testimony, through my father's death and through my disability, is that I fully believe a hundred percent and always have from a very young age, in Romans 8:28 that in all things God works to the good for those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose. So, there have been times where I have been upset or sad, or slightly angry with God. But it is very few and far between when that happens, just enough to be healthy about it. Other than that I've never really challenged it, and I've always thought it's been for the good, and I've always trusted the Lord in that. Which is a blessing, I think, that the Lord has given me that ability, that spirit to be willing and trusting and excepting of His will."
When he came of age, he chose to go to the University of Illinois because it had the top wheelchair basketball program in North America as well as the top three actuarial science programs in North America. But because he could in no way afford it, he sent out letters and videos to about 250 companies and corporations asking for help and money. In this way, his first year of university was paid in full and the last three years were partially paid. But God sent him to U of I to forge an important relationship and bond with his coach, Mike Frogley, who is also disabled. Mike is paralyzed from the waist down due to a car accident.
"The Lord took me to the University of Illinois for the reason that my father wasn't around and I needed a male leader and something to substitute for my father's leadership. Mike Frogley was the coach of the University of Illinois and also the coach for the Canadian National team. And when I got there, he took me under his wing not only in terms of his expectations of me as an athlete, but his expectations of my personal life, my personal growth and the accountability he gave me on and off the court.
"It's just amazing how the Lord continues to seek you out and provide for you. Mike was what He provided me with at that time in my life and that's exactly what I needed. He held me accountable to a different level than a lot of coaches would to their athletes, personally, academically, spiritually. I grew so much in those four years and I attribute a very large portion of that to Mike's leadership."
He revved up his training in college, but he had been dedicated to the sport since junior high when he would regularly train four hours a day. Even in highschool, he was going to extreme measures to mold his body into that of a world class athlete.
"Winnipeg was really snowy. I remember there were a couple of winters where me and one of my buddies would actually get in chairs and go for a four mile push through non plowed sidewalks. I mean, some of them were plowed but you'd have to hop-skip around all the ice, get out, pull your chair up. I mean it was just an incredible workout. And that was when I got a lot of my physical strength and speed and power and endurance in the chair was around those years when we were doing stuff like that.
"Getting to U of I, [there was] three and a half hours of team practice a day, plus lifting and personal shooting and cardiovascular as well as traveling every second weekend. Behind the stadium seating would be all these ramps that the cars would use and you go to the top [of those] and use different kinds of pushing styles and patterns and timed circuits with that. We really work on your muscle fibers and how quickly you can get them to twitch and quickly you can get them going. [We worked on] chair skills in the gym where there was 8-12 different exorcises between learning to balance on one wheel and sit like this for five minutes." (Travis takes his sports chair and pushes it on it's side so that it is resting on one wheel at an angle of about 45 degrees from the floor by way of example. It looks like he's defying gravity or like a stunt you'd see in a car chase where you hold your breath because you don't know whether the car is going to make it back down to four wheels or flip over and crash. You can't imagine someone holding the position he demonstrates on his chair for five seconds let alone five minutes.) "You do stuff where you strap yourself into your chair and you fall down, completely on the ground, and then I have to be up, in like, a half second. So you do that for five minutes: up, down, up, down, for five minutes.
Every child dreams of that moment when the gold is put around your neck, so I wondered what it felt like to someone who has twice had that pleasure.
"It was like the moment where everything just came together as worth it. Because, there was a lot of heart ache, there was a lot of pain, there were a lot of sacrifices that went into the training. Our coach was in the army, and early on his coaching career he was very militaristic. Going into Sydney we'd be training twice a day for three hours a day, plus video sessions, plus meetings with our sports psychologist. They were very long days."
I learned a lot from my conversation with Travis. I learned that stubbornness can sometimes direct destiny, that trusting God for His will is a blessing and I should pray fervently for it, and that there is a reward at the end of hard work. Therefore, dear readers, "Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary."
I asked Travis what was next on his agenda. What does a person do after he's climbed the biggest mountain?
"Because I've come from such a loving family, if there is one thing the Lord can give me as an earthly gift, the one thing I want more than anything is to marry and have children. There is nothing I want more than that on this earth."
Calling all single ladies: On your marks, get set, go!
by C. C. Kurzeja
2005 All Rights Reserved