BEIJING - Travis Dodson had completed his competitions in biathlon and cross-country at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi when he and his teammates went to watch one of the final events. The U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team was on the ice, looking to defend their title and bring back a second-straight gold medal to the United States. Dodson watched in awe, knowing that was where his sports future would lie.
He knew he was at the end of his nordic career after finishing his first Games, and he leaned over to a teammate saying that he thought he might like to play sled hockey next. His teammate, a skeptic, may have been just the person to light a fire and propel Dodson toward another goal.
“I said ‘I bet you I can make this one in four years. I can make this. I can make that team.’ And I was a little overconfident because it took me every bit of that time to do it.”
It was in the airport on the way home, not on the ice, where he made his first contact to try to get into sled hockey. He had seen then head coach Jeff Sauer and approached him to learn about how to get into sled hockey. Sauer gave him some advice, and Dodson looked at him, again with that self-described “overconfidence” and told him to look for him.
“I looked at Coach Sauer and said ‘I'm coming. I'm going to be coming in just like look out for me. And I barely made it the last year. I made it right before the 2018 Games.”
The New Mexico native had never been interested or involved in any sort of winter sports. His introduction to Nordic skiing was through The Center for the Intrepid, a rehab facility for amputee and burn victims at Brooke Army Medical Center, where he was recruited by coaches for Nordic biathlon and they were looking for guys that may be interested. In a way to keep up on his cardio, he got into the sport and made the 2014 Games.
He been in a sled previously, but had a tumultuous relationship with it right out of the gate. After being injured in combat in the mid 2000’s, people running his therapy were looking for adaptive sports for him to try and sled hockey was one of them. He said he first got in a sled around 2008, shortly after his injury, but was not in the right mindset to keep going.
“I got in my bucket and I kept falling down all the time. I couldn’t stay up on the blades. I think I was in the sled for about 30 minutes until I said I would never do it again. I got into wheelchair racing and cross-country skiing.”
Dodson said that at that time he was still going through some of the phases of trying to get past his injury. He, admittedly, felt that adaptive sports were “a charity case” and that he felt like it may feel like a “pity party.”
“All I wanted to do was get on prosthetics and run,” he said. “I kind of wrote [sled hockey] off. But then as I got older I was just in a much better place to actually accept that this is a great sport.”
Flash forward 10-years later and Dodson was preparing to compete in his second Paralympics and first with the Paralympic Sled Hockey Team.
The 2022 Paralympic Winter Games will be Dodson’s third Games, and second in as many tries with the sled team. He and a mixture of veterans and rookies are looking for another historic gold for the U.S., a country that has medaled in each Games since 2002 and has been at the top of the podium since 2010. In 2018, Dodson played in four of the five games, including the gold-medal game, and scored three goals.
David Hoff, head coach of the 2022 U.S. Paralympic Sled Hockey Team, was an assistant coach of the 2018 team. He has seen first-hand the improvements Dodson has made as a player and how important of a player he is to this team.
“He was more of a role player that went out there and gave you an honest shift [in 2018]. He wasn't going to get scored on those that type of player. But now just his skill set, it's just gotten so much better.
“He could play in that third line role if you needed him too. But he really has the ability to be a top six forward to create to score a little bit, those types of things. So it's been fun. That's the whole thing. Fun to see the growth of a player like that individually and how he then fits into our team, you know, collectively.”
Dodson, always one to give himself an honest assessment, feels like his game has improved and he is ready to make a big impact in Beijing.
“I’ve definitely grown a lot more as a player and just my understanding of the game and everything has grown significantly. At the same token, I’m not going to say everyone else has stagnated. The guys on this team have gotten even more skilled than they were before, and it’s crazy how good people are getting at the sport. It’s very apparent that the skill is going to be through the roof pretty soon.”