Colorado Springs, Colo. -- A boating accident left 1st Lt. Ryan McGuire with a below-the-knee amputation of his right leg. His indomitable spirit led him to the Warrior Games.
When 1st Lt. Ryan McGuire crossed the finish line in fourth place in the 1,500-meter run, he was out of breath and in pain. But he'd felt worse ... much worse. So between gulps of thin air on the track at the base of the Colorado Rockies, he managed a weary grin. And, hands on hips, he stood there proudly on his own two feet -- one provided by his parents, the other by a medical team at the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio.
McGuire, who had his right leg amputated below the knee Oct. 10, participated at the Warrior Games May 10-14 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Through the joint efforts of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Olympic Committee, these inaugural military Paralympics games featured wounded warriors from all branches
of service. Events took place at the Olympic Training Center, where the athletes stayed, as well as at the nearby Air Force Academy.
For the 24-year-old McGuire, his journey to the games seemed nearly as fast as his sprint to the finish line in the 1,500. In September, he was in a boating mishap. In October, he had to have his lower right leg cut off. By November he'd graduated from a wheelchair to crutches. In early December, he received his first prosthetic.
"When I initially heard about the Warrior Games in January, I was still learning how to walk with my new prosthetic," McGuire said. "So I really just kind of put it out of my mind. To be ready to run and compete by early May?
... Simply not possible."
But since his mishap, the Woodlands, Texas, native had been redefining his realm of possibilities. So when doctors, friends, family and the Air Force team coach encouraged him to sign up, he did so, albeit reluctantly.
"I was skeptical, to say the least," he said.
Nevertheless, McGuire, who would have been a pilot in February had he not been injured, threw himself at this new, exciting goal.
"The Warrior Games wasn't just a competition to me; it served as therapy," he said.
The games represented a landmark moment in his recovery. In Rocky Mountain country, he had "climbed the mountaintop," so to speak.
Amazing, considering he had hit rock bottom only seven months ago.
On a rare break from the demanding undergraduate pilot training program at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, he and four classmates headed to nearby Lake Amistad over the Labor Day weekend last summer. On Sept. 6, they'd just finished a fun day of boating and tubing, and were ready to head back into the marina to turn in their rental equipment.
They reeled in the four-man tube, which they'd been pulling behind the boat with a 50-foot tow rope, but didn't secure it. Instead, McGuire looped the rope once around a handle at the side of the boat and held onto it, letting the slack fall to the floor.
As they headed for the marina and the boat accelerated to nearly 40 mph, the 5-foot, 20-pound tube caught air.
Then all hell broke loose.
"The tube flew out of the boat and hit the water," McGuire said. "Once it hit the lake, the water created drag and pulled the rope taught."
Like a nightmarish home video in super slow-mo, he said he can remember every millisecond of what happened next.
"As the rope came up off the floor, it wrapped around my right leg and yanked me off of my feet," he said. "The force slammed me into the side of the boat, frac-turing my pelvis and dislocating my hip."
Then, like a giant hand, it snatched him out of the vessel, sending him soaring through the air.
He landed in the water, only inches from the slicing blades of the prop.
"I remember looking straight at the prop and thinking, 'I'm going to die,' " he said.
Instead, the drag of the tube jerked him away from the roaring motor. The rope unraveled around his leg, leaving the "mother of all Indian burns," which immediately cauterized. The rope had crushed bones in his ankle and foot and severely damaged arteries and veins.
While the "lasso" had released him, sheer agony gripped him now.
"I had been pulled underwater, and I came up screaming," he said.
Though his ankle had been shattered, it was his pelvis and hip that proved to be the source of his suffering. He had enough adrenaline coursing through his veins to get back into the boat with the assistance of his buddies, but then he refused to move again ... at all.
"My friends wanted to get help," he said. "But I wouldn't let them drive the boat because the movement over the choppy water was just too painful."
Miles from the marina and too far out to get cell phone service, they eventually managed to wave down some jet skiers, who went for help. When a rescue crew arrived nearly two hours after the mishap, they managed to get McGuire onto a stretcher. Against the lieutenant's protests, they slowly made their way back to shore, where an ambulance waited to rush him to the emergency room.
Nearly four and a half hours after being injured, he arrived at the hospital in Del Rio, Texas, still in excruciating pain. There, a doctor pulled his hip into place.
"I had a few choice words for her," he said, turning a bit red at the thought. "But I actually felt a little better after that."
When doctors looked at his leg and found out how much time had elapsed, they were concerned.
"They didn't have an artery specialist there, so they took one look at me and called in a helicopter," McGuire said.
The helicopter was delayed by weather, but the young officer finally arrived at the trauma center at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio almost 10 hours after the mishap.
Just before heading to the operating table, he saw his younger sister who had driven in from Texas State University in San Marcos, some 40 minutes away.
"It was good to see a familiar face," McGuire said. "Then, they rolled me into the trauma room, and I passed out."
When he awoke in the intensive care unit, he had a bulky boot stabilizing his foot. He also wore a belt that cinched his pelvis together until surgeons were able to operate on it.
Doctors seemed confident he'd make a full recovery.
But two weeks after he'd arrived at the medical center, his toes began to die. First the toe next to his big one, then his big toe, then his middle toe.
"They tried everything to save them, even leeches," McGuire said. "But nothing worked. I was horrified."
Then doctors broke the bad news: They recommended he get a below-the-knee amputation.
"I was like, 'Amputate my leg because of a couple of toes? Absolutely, not!' " he said. "I insisted that they only cut off half of my foot."
When they did that four weeks into his hospital stay and the tissue continued to die, the writing was on the wall. The below-the-knee amputation became a cold reality.
Six weeks after the boating mishap, surgeons sawed off his lower leg.
"It was all so surreal," McGuire said. "It probably really didn't hit home until I woke up after the surgery. I opened my eyes, and my mom started crying. I pretty much knew then that it wasn't just a bad dream."
For a few days after the amputation, he got a case of the "shoulda, couldas."
"I analyzed every detail of what happened and started beating myself up for not doing this or not doing that," he said. "In the end, was it preventable? Yes. We should have found a way to tie down the tube, and I shouldn't have been holding it. But it's still just a freak accident. Nobody tells you before you go out on the boat, 'Remember, don't hold the tube.' Then you get caught up in the moment, let your guard down and ... in two short seconds you learn that you're not invincible."
McGuire said the day following the amputation was the worst of his life.
"I never felt such pain, both physically and emotionally," he said. "I had a pretty bleak attitude about the future."
His recovery then moved to the Center for the Intrepid, and he has been there ever since, rehabilitating full time.
Participating in five events at the Warrior Games, including the run, three swimming events and sitting team volleyball, has helped him regain his swagger. He even took the gold in the 50-meter backstroke.
The same determination McGuire used to lead him to the Warrior Games has rekindled a dream he had as a kid: He badly wants to be an Air Force pilot.
"I worked hard in high school, I worked hard at the Air Force Academy, and I worked even harder going through pilot training," he said. "I won't give up."
So McGuire relentlessly trains to meet a medical board that will determine his fate. He lauds the tremendous support he has received in his recovery and the pursuit of his dream. But he still knows it could be a long shot. For while there have been seasoned pilots who have had legs amputated and come back to fly, no student pilots have ever been cleared to do so.
"That's OK; I'm going to be the first," he says defiantly. "No risk, no reward."
And he's already proven he has no problem going out on a limb.