SAN ANTONIO -- The San Marcos River runs deep and clear as three wounded warriors, new to the sport, skirt the rapids in brightly colored kayaks.
One of those men is Sgt. First Class Antonio Cruz. After 19 years in the U.S. Army, he has taken on a more personal battle.
Last August, during a tour in Afghanistan, Cruz was standing in a chow line when a mortar round ripped through the roof and landed on his ankle.
Luckily for him, it didn't explode, but Cruz did lose his foot.
"That wasn't my day. I know God was like, 'Hey, Tony, it's not your day, but I'm just going to take your right foot.' And I'm like, 'Roger that, I agree with it!'" he joked.
Cruz is one of about 200 patients currently rehabilitating at San Antonio's Center for the Intrepid. And as such, he is rebuilding his strength and learning to embrace his "new normal."
At the CFI, patients recovering from amputations, burns or limb salvage surgeries are introduced to adaptive sports as part of their rehabilitation.
Kayaking as therapy
Just one week after Cruz received his new leg, he was out on the San Marcos River with kayak coach and Olympic athlete Ben Kvanli.
Kvanli volunteers his time and kayaks weekly to work with wounded warriors. He also spends each day training with those he recruits to compete on the U.S. National Paralympic Team.
He got the idea from his mom, who works for the Veterans Administration. She had seen the success of ski programs and called Kvanli.
"She said, 'Well, we can't ski in Texas, so why don't you come down and see if the guys like (kayaking),'" Kvanli recalled. "It was magic right away. They have total freedom when they're in the boats. Everybody's on an even playing field again."
Kvanli, who started the coaching for the Paralympics in 2010, said the most difficult things for an adaptive athlete to overcome are the fear of getting hurt and learning about how their bodies work.
"So the magic comes in the pool at the CFI when they first get in the boat and just see, 'Yeah, I can do this!'" he laughed. "And once that happens, then from there on I have to hold them back."
Cruz hasn't stopped at just kayaking. He's also tried sled hockey and cycling. He said he wants to be able to hike, as well. But first he must make the prosthesis a part of him - a part of his body.
"It's a process of trusting my prosthetic," he explained.
Working on mind and body
On his second try at kayaking, Staff Sgt. Chris Byers brought his young family to try their hand at the sport. "I'm all about this stuff now," he said.
Byers lost both feet when he stepped on an IED on July 7 in Afghanistan. He said he had just stepped away from a truck and the next thing he knew he was lying face down in the dirt. When he rolled himself over, the first thing he saw was his foot hanging on the door.
"And I'm like, 'Aww, what am I going to do now?'' he recalled.
After two and a half months at CFI, Byers' attitude is strong and healthy, and he's working four to five hours a day to get his body there, too.
Though it was their first attempt, Byers' wife, Annie, their 5-year-old daughter, Cruiz, and their son, Liam, climbed into individual kayaks while Byers doubled up with Kvanli. The youngest Byers -- 'Buddy' (aka Grayson) -- kept an eye on his family from the sidelines along the river bank.
"When you first get out of the hospital, you have no strength," Byers said. "All your strength is gone -- all you did was sit in the bed for a while. I'm still building and I'm starting to walk more when I work out now, and that's kind of the goal at CFI: They want to build your strength enough for you to walk again. Once you start walking, you're going to start regaining the strength you had before."
He's building his balance and his confidence kayaking and says he'll definitely do a lot more of it. He hopes it will help him eventually fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a police officer.
"What I feel like," says Kvanli, "is that they've done some extreme stuff. You know? I mean, I think of myself as an adventurer, but nothing compares to what these guys have done. This gets them back into that adventure. It really brings them to life."
Inspired by warriors
On July 15, 2011, SrA August O'Niell was in a helicopter over Afghanistan on a mission to rescue some Marines when he was shot through his knee and right calf. Now O'Niell is working his way toward recovery so that he can to return to his team of para-rescuers stationed in Las Vegas.
He is anxious to get back to the job he loves and plans on staying in the military for the full 20 years, but first O'Niell has to go through several more surgeries to replace ligaments and remove extra bone that has grown into his knee.
Through the CFI, he has done not only kayaking, but archery, rowing and hand cycling for the Paralympics time trials.
About the positive and inspiring experiences at CFI, O'Niell says, "It's really every day that you think you're like, 'Man, i just can't do this right now. I mean, I'm just done. And you'll see a guy over there who's got three of his limbs missing and he's climbing the rock wall. And you're just like, 'Yeah, I think I can do it, I'm good."
Back in the water, Cruz said trying to right yourself in a kayak is the biggest challenge, especially "the balance (and) getting yourself back up without the use of your other leg."
But Kvanli drilled him over and over -- and Cruz keeps at it, rolling over and over in the water -- until he comfortably mastered the technique.
"My motto is: Do or die," he said, "You either try or you die."
As this team took the falls and headed off down the river, I recalled the final scene in the film "Hook" where a grownup Peter Pan stands next to an aged Wendy, looking out over the balcony at Tootles, who has regained his marbles and a sprinkle of fairy dust, sailing off to Neverland gleefully shouting, "Seize the day!" Wendy leans over to Peter and says, "So, your adventures are over." And Peter replies, "Oh, no. To live, to live will be an awfully big adventure!"
These Intrepid kayakers have once more plunged right in.
Ben Kvanli and his team have started a non-profit organization dedicated to Veterans' Adventure Therapy, and they're now actively seeking to raise funds to help pay for trips.