2X Paralympian Brent Poppen to Visit L.A. Abilities Expo

Brent Poppen always aspired to be a "dirtbag." Growing up in Long Beach, he wanted to play baseball at Long Beach State, whose team nickname was the Dirt Bags. He had a real passion for baseball, but really all sports. "I wanted to be outdoors and was active," Poppen said. At a very young age, he also wanted to compete. "I loved the idea of competing against another person or another team."

In addition to baseball, he joined the football team as a freshman. "I had a lot of aggression growing up, so football was a good fit… I loved the contact."

Brent Poppen: Quadriplegics Journey from Paralysis to Paralympics

Once an Athlete, Always an Athlete

When he was 16 years old, Poppen went to a youth camp in the Fresno foothills. On one of the first days there, he and another camper were goofing off and essentially play wrestling. Poppen picked up the other individual, the two of them fell over sideways and the other camper happened to land on Poppen's head in such a way that paralyzed him from the neck down.

At that point, Poppen wasn't sure how to handle this immediate change in his life. "At the beginning, I assumed I would get better just like any athletic injury." But reality did settle in, and he was trying to figure out his situation. "I didn't know anybody in the disabled world or about wheelchairs or about the Paralympics. Initially, I thought there would be nothing for me to do."

But Poppen would be introduced to wheelchair sports during his rehabilitation. "I didn't have the function where I couldn't play them yet, but I could see someone playing tennis and playing rugby. My sister would say that the light in my eyes didn't come on until I was introduced to wheelchair sports."

Wheelchair rugby made sense because it was originally designed for quadriplegics and para tennis had a quad division. "This was a chance for me to compete again. To set goals, practice, and feel like an athlete again."

He will also tell you that ignorance is bliss as his first impression of adaptive sports wasn't the best. "I didn't know how competitive it would be. I thought I would just dominate and be the best. That was my mentality. But I was humbled very quickly."

It changed his focus and his thoughts about being disabled. "Sport was a driving factor for a positive attitude."

Poppen Sets his Sights on the Paralympics

Poppen joined the local wheelchair rugby team at Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center. "For me, wheelchair rugby was my football. I loved the crashing into each other and hearing the chairs banging." But success didn't come overnight. It took about six years before he was playing at the elite level.

During that time, there were a lot of teams in Southern California. "We had our own little league, so a decision was made to pull the best talent from all those teams into one team to compete at the national level." And that worked, because they have won several national championships since.

As he wrapped up college in 2004, Poppen went to a tryout for the national team even though all the spots were essentially full. He was determined to take somebody's spot and he indeed did make the team. They would go to Athens and win a bronze medal at the 2004 Summer Paralympic Games.

Brent Poppen Book

Tennis was also an important sport for Poppen, as it was a sport that his family played, including his mom and dad. "I could play with my family. The only difference is I get two bounces. They weren't going to play rugby with me."

He was playing both sports at a pretty high level throughout his athletic career. So after the 2004 Paralympics, he turned his attention towards tennis. "I wanted to challenge myself. Also, not too many Paralympians had competed in two different disciplines."

But Poppen started behind the eight ball because he hadn't played for two or three years while focusing on wheelchair rugby. "I was terrible at first, but kept working my way up. It took a few years. In fact, it came down to the last tournament, the Japan Open, prior to the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, to determine whether he would be able to compete for Team USA again. "It came down to my last chance. I had that same mentality that I was going to take that spot." Although he didn't medal, he had a decent finish and ending up losing to the guy who won the gold medal.

His goal was to do three Paralympics, so he set his sights on the 2012 Paralympics in London. But what sport? "I missed rugby and the team effort." So by 2010, he was on the national team again and had won his 7th national championship for his San Diego club team.

Adaptive Athlete Turned Author Joins Move United at Abilities Expo

In 2010, he had a blood infection that would be septic. "I ignored it a bit." On July 18th of that year, he would be rushed to the hospital and was told he likely only had days to live if he hadn't come in. Poppen would spend 35 days in the ICU and 7 months in a hospital bed. "As a result, I knew I wouldn't be able to make the Paralympic team."

Then he was approached by Dr. Richardson, who was a previous teacher of his, about writing his story. Poppen had already put together a story about a boy named Harley that used a wheelchair so the two of them worked on turning it into a children's book. They also worked on his autobiography.

"Working on those books was the best medicine," he said. "It allowed me to think about something to get through those difficult times." Both books would be published in 2012.

"Playground Lessons" is really a book about Poppen's life. Harley is a second grade boy at a new school where he was the only one with a disability. "It is like the way I feel going into a similar setting." And Harley's chair was the chair he was in when writing the book. His autobiography, "Tragedy on the Mountain," is the Poppen's story of courage in the face of adversity, of triumph over tragedy. He is now on staff at Children's Hospital in Fresno, California. You can learn more at www.hugsbybrent.com.

NOTE: You can pick up a signed copy of one or both of Brent Poppen's books at the Los Angeles Abilities Expo at Move United's booth (#108) on Saturday, March 5th from 12-4 p.m., and see Poppen's Paralympic medal.

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