ARLINGTON, Texas — For the past several months an Ohio transplant has called Grand Prairie home and UT Arlington his training location on a very long road to Tokyo and the Paralympic Games.
"About a month before my 21st birthday," Ray Hennagir said of the moment, as a Marine corporal serving in Iraq, that changed his life and his trajectory forever.
It has been 15 years since he stepped on an IED, losing both of his legs and much of his left hand. But he did not lose his Marine Corps fighting spirit.
"More happy that you're alive than feeling sorry for yourself because it could be worse," he said of his mindset as he began his recovery. "It could have been the end."
And in the course of his recovery at U.S. medical facilities in both Germany and at Walter Reed Military Medical Center, he found wheelchair basketball and then wheelchair rugby.
"You can get away and think about something other than life for a little bit. Because life is a hard thing to deal with," Hennagir said. "I like the fact that we can hit. I like the physicalness. It's a lot more fun to me."
"As one of my captains likes to say it's basically a sport where a bunch of crippled people try to make each other more crippled," he said with a mischievous grin.
And it was a fun-loving and positive attitude that got an additional push with help and financial support from an organization called the Semper Fi & America’s Fund. The charity helps veterans with transition back into civilian life and is "dedicated to providing urgently needed resources and support for combat wounded, critically ill and catastrophically injured members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families." The Fund has helped Hennagir with wheelchair and rugby chair equipment and gift cards to help with his training and nutrition.
And Hennagir's athletic prowess got him noticed by the USA Wheelchair Rugby Team. He joined the roster of 16 players two years ago. And now he's in Tokyo for the Paralympic Games. Their first match is on Tuesday against New Zealand.
"It's unreal. It's something that I never expected to happen. And happy to be going out there and representing the USA," he said after one of his last training sessions a few weeks ago at UT Arlington.
One other thing you notice about Ray is that his arms are covered in tattoos.
"Every single tattoo has meaning," he said pointing to one that honors his Native American heritage and another on his right shoulder that honors a fellow fallen Marine. But on his left forearm is one that shows an image of a wheelchair with the words 'disability is a state of mind.'
"Any person's dream, any athlete's dream, is to compete at the highest level," Hennagir said. "Even though you have a disability doesn't mean you're disabled. Like you can still do things you can accomplish goals. Like the world is still your oyster."
An oyster, and its pearl, that a motivated marine hopes to turn into Tokyo gold.