Featured in our 5th Annual Faces of Sports Issue!
Sometimes life can change in a matter of seconds. Paralympian Oscar “Oz” Sanchez can certainly attest to that.
Born and raised in Los Angeles in 1975 with an alcoholic father and an abusive mother, he was already a street kid involved in drugs and the gang life by the time he graduated from high school. But he turned his life around in 1996 and entered the Marine Corps. It was the perfect environment for Sanchez and he eventually joined the Marine Corps Special Operations forces; as a Reconnaissance or Recon Marine he deployed twice to the Middle East.
After six years with the Marines operating in hostile regions, Sanchez decided to transfer to the Navy to operate as a Navy Seal. It was July 2001 while his transfer paperwork was underway when it happened – he was involved in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident that changed his life forever. The accident left him with a spinal cord injury (SCI) resulting in paralysis from the thighs down and neurological complications.
Sanchez had turned his life around in the Marines but the accident left him with post-injury depression. And that depression led to a drinking problem that wound up costing him his marriage. To his credit he turned his life around again; he pulled out of the depression by proactively challenging his condition by obtaining a business degree in 2006 from San Diego State University with a minor in public communications with plans to return to school for a master’s degree in exercise science.
His biggest fear was being defined by his injury so he also decided to devote himself to sports. Now a competitive adaptive athlete, he is both an elite hand cycle racer and a triathlete. Since his accident Sanchez has won a number of medals and awards. At his first Paralympic Games held in Beijing in 2008, Sanchez won two medals, gold and silver. Adding two medals to the count for the U.S. team, Sanchez has gone on to win a number of medals. He’s also a five-time World Hand Cycling Champion, earning him the title of the “world’s fastest hand cyclist.”
In 2009 the San Diego Hall of Champions honored Sanchez as the “Challenged Athlete of the Year.” He also appeared in the film, “Unbeaten” that same year. “Unbeaten” is an award-winning documentary that followed 31 adaptive athletes as they travel 267 miles through Denali National Park. The participants traveled 55 miles a day over the course of six days. Sanchez was one of two featured adaptive athletes featured in the documentary.
Just last August Sanchez won two medals at the 2018 UCI Paracycling Road World Championships. The Championships were held in Maniago, Italy and he won a gold medal as part of the hand cycle relay. His teammates included Americans Will Grouix and David Randall. Sanchez crossed the finish line ahead of Italy’s team to help Team USA take the gold.
In addition to training and participating in adaptive sports, Sanchez has built a career sharing his story and motivating others. He travels extensively throughout the U.S. and internationally as a speaker and has served as an official spokesperson for the Challenged Athlete’s Foundation (CAF): Operation Rebound program and for organizations such as the U.S. Paralympics Committee.
In a split-second Sanchez’s life changed after his motorcycle accident. Now, as an elite athlete and speaker Sanchez changes others lives in that same split-second with his message: “There is nothing you can’t accomplish when you Know No Limits.”
By Ian Colgate