Making Waves

Sled Hockey Stalwart Jack Wallace Taking On New Challenge In Quest To Punch Ticket To 2024 Summer Paralympic Games

As the sun starts to peek over the eastern edge of Nashville’s horizon, the first glimmers of light dance across the tranquil waters of Percy Priest Reservoir.

Jack Wallace has already begun his morning routine 20 miles to the west in his downtown apartment before making the 20-minute commute to the Hamilton Creek Marina, which houses the Nashville Rowing Club. 

To beat the oppressive heat that has blanketed most of the country this summer, Wallace is in a race against time to get in his daily workouts before the sun and humidity zap him of his strength and endurance. 

Wallace finds solace and shade in the cab of his truck in between his grueling sessions, going over his previous workout as he plans for the next one.

The setting is a far cry from the Franklin Lakes, N.J., native’s usual field of excellence as a member of the U.S. National Sled Hockey Team. While being in the ice rink would be a welcome reprieve during the stifling summer heat, the change of scenery is paying dividends that have given him an opportunity to expand his athletic resume.

Wallace is on a mission to do what few athletes have accomplished by qualifying for a spot with Team USA in both the Paralympic Summer and Winter Games. 

His summer sport of choice is paracanoeing, which, much like sled hockey, requires an immense amount of upper body strength, determination and endurance. Unlike his seven-year tenure with the tightknit U.S. Sled Hockey Team, though, this time Wallace toils and trains in isolation.

 Out on the lake, Wallace does not have the support of his U.S. teammates, with whom he has won two Paralympic gold medals in addition to three IPC World Championship titles. Instead, Wallace is in a race against the clock and himself to achieve his goals. 

With the retirement of Nevin Harrison, the first American to medal at the Sprint Canoe World Championships in 2019, Wallace is on a quest to compete for the U.S in Paris next summer. 

It would make him one of a small number of athletes to compete at both the Paralympic Summer and Winter Games.

The quest has been five years in the making that began with a casual conversation with sled teammate Brody Roybal about how to add diversity and variety to their already dedicated training regimens. 

“I had come off my first Olympic cycle and [Roybal] had come off his second and we were talking about how training year-round can lead to some burnout,” Wallace recalls. “We were looking for some change in motivation and all that different stuff where, especially when it’s summertime, you don’t want to be stuck in a hockey rink all day.”

Roybal’s athletic resume includes climbing the 103 floors of the Willis Tower in his hometown of Chicago, an impressive accomplishment under the best of circumstances, but given the fact that he used only his upper body to make the climb it was something else. 

Looking for more than just another challenge to match his friend and teammate, Wallace parlayed his passion for the water into his own cross-training routine that eventually led to his pursuit of another Paralympic medal.

Even the waterskiing accident that cost Wallace his right leg as a 10-year-old couldn’t diminish his love of the water, or his drive to compete. 

“I love the idea of training outside, on the water, and the amount of cardio and upper body strength it takes and the cross-training aspect of it,” he says.

Growing up playing any sport he could find, Wallace quickly gravitated to hockey. The following summer he attended Camp No Limits, a camp for kids who have lost limbs. A counselor told him about adaptive sports, including sled hockey. The path was then set that would lead him to the U.S. Developmental Sled Team, and eventually the U.S. National Team.

“I remember him coming to camp as a youngster,” recalls David Hoff, who has spent the better part of a decade working with the U.S. Sled Hockey Program, including the last five seasons as head coach of the national team. “Over that time, he has continued to grow. You really realize that there was a lot of potential.” 

While his path to the Paralympic Winter Games has been paved with gold, Wallace has found the summer route a bit more challenging.

After setting his sights on the last Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo that were delayed by pandemic concerns, Wallace’s goal was put on the shelf because of an injury that forced him to undergo UCL replacement surgery on his left elbow, commonly referred to as Tommy John surgery.

Regardless, Wallace roared back stronger than ever to help the U.S. win its fourth straight sled hockey gold in Beijing, where the defenseman contributed three goals and six assists. Now back to full strength, Wallace is looking to add another chapter to his athletic journal, something that few others, able-bodied or disabled, have ever accomplished.

More than just hopefully punching his ticket to Paris, Wallace is adding to his already impressive athletic foundation that helps him on the ice. Not only has he noticed a difference in his strength and stamina brought out through his time in a kayak, but his teammates and coaches are equally impressed.

“You can definitely see that his fitness level has gone up,” Hoff points out. “He was very physically fit before, but you can see what the different training has done for him, and for us. It’s made him a much better skater and someone who’s very physically conditioned. He’s better and better every year. A lot of that I attribute to what he’s doing with us and what he’s doing with them.”

It’s not just the physical benefits of competing in multiple sports, Hoff says, but rather how it’s impacted his mental approach to competing.

“There’s a mental toughness that comes with competing in an individual sport. That’s one of the things that’s been really good for Jack,” Hoff says.

Wallace faces some choppy waters on his way to Paris. Wallace is one a handful of paddlers looking to qualify for the Summer Paralympic Games. Given Wallace’s recent results on the water, those chances seem pretty good.

“Last year I finished in the top 10, and that’s pretty much the criteria to qualify, to be top 10 in the world,” he says. “I’ve been training a lot since then.”

To improve his chances, Wallace has enlisted the help of Australian Olympian Shelley Oates-Wilding, head coach of the USA Sprint Kayak Team, to help design a training program to push him across the finish line. 

His first test comes at the end of August in Duisberg, Germany, where he will compete at the 2023 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championship. A top-6 finish there could also qualify Wallace for the Paralympics.  

Even if things don’t go Wallace’s way in Germany, he will have another chance to grab a spot with a top-four finish at the World Cup next May in Hungary.

Wallace has stayed in touch with his sled teammates even as his summer training continues to ramp up. And they certainly haven’t forgotten about him, often pressing for updates on his quest. It’s what makes the U.S. Sled Team a band of brothers that support each other on and off the ice. Therefore, when he dips his oar in the water in Paris next summer, if he gets that far, Wallace will have a loyal following cheering him on.

Even though some may have been concerned about how much his summer Paralympic push would impact his on-ice game, Wallace has shown that he can handle the dual workload and come out even stronger because of it.

“I was worried about it when I started, and I think my coaches were a little bit concerned about me taking training time away from hockey and devoting to something else,” he admits. “But it turns out it has enhanced my game and brought it to a new level that I didn’t even think I could get to. At this point, I’m the fastest I’ve ever been. I have the best cardio I’ve ever had.”

“It’s turned me into a much better player. I wasn’t sure about it, but that’s what my coaches and my teammates have told me. They’ve said that I’ve come into a new level of gameplay, and I felt really good about it. I’m happy that it’s a net positive for both sports.” 

Issue: 
2023-08

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