National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete: Sualauvi “Sua” Tuimalealiifano
Hometown: American Samoa and Kalihi, Hawaii
Current location: Tampa, Florida
Military Branch/Years of Service: Army/13
Years at NVGA: 2
2017 Events: rugby, slalom, seated shot put, seated discus, bench competition
Born in American Samoa, Sualauvi “Sua” Tuimalealiifano and his family moved to Kalihi, Hawaii, when he was six. After staying with various family members they finally found a home of their own. The second oldest of six siblings, Sua grew up playing the role of protector, taking care of his brothers and sisters, and fending off bullies. That natural leadership and desire to serve others led him to join the Army after high school.
“I loved the ability to serve. A lot of my motivation comes from the memories and the feelings and the emotions of the past. I didn’t really understand it until later but one of my motivations was to free the oppressed. The oppressed is where I put myself when I see pictures of my upbringing and how I look back on it and that’s exactly what it was. We were in that group. Joining the service made me feel like I was relieving that. No more bullies. No more bad guys. No more crap.”
After beginning as a reservist, Sua transitioned to active duty, entered airborne school and then the Civil Affairs program at Ft Bragg. Deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, Sua served two Special Operations tours before being injured in a firefight outside Firebase Cobra in the Oruzgan province.
“After being thrown off the back of the Humvee, from the top of the M240 swivel reacting to enemy fire, I landed on my back with over 100 pounds of gear and heard a hallow twig snap from within my ears; not outside but within.”
His team helped him up and they fought their way back to base, but Sua continued to experience severe neck pain for weeks. At the time, the base was in such hostile territory that the only personnel flying out to the Green Zone were critical cases. Three months later, Sua woke one morning and went to get out of his bed, which was raised four feet off the floor. The entire lower half of his body didn’t move, but his upper body already in motion, gravity did the rest. Sua crashed to the floor, hitting his head against the nightstand. The firefight had fractured Sua’s neck and the fall out of bed disconnected what was fractured, fully breaking his neck and leaving him paralyzed.
After surgery in Germany, Sua flew stateside, first to Walter Reed followed by a year at the Tampa VA before the Shepard Center in Atlanta, all while suffering “the worst pain I’ve ever been in; absolute torture, excruciating, day in and day out.” He and his wife, Shannon, stayed with her parents in North Carolina for a few months before moving to Hawaii to be close to Sua’s family.
The VA staff connected Sua to Paralyzed Veterans of America, but it was the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) team of the Warrior Games that introduced him to the adaptive sports community and opened up a whole new world. Since 2015, Sua has competed in the Dixie Games, the Invictus Games, the Warrior Games (twice), and this will be his second year at the NVWG. For Sua, adaptive sports has been a gamechanger.
“The first two to three years were rough. Getting involved in adaptive sports made things better. There was now something I was able to do again. It opened me up. Having a lot of people being helpful and supportive helped me to stay the course. I was exposed to a lot of different people, different groups, different injuries that I had no idea were out there. The way I saw myself was disheartening. It was good for me to break through that. Now it’s a lot better than the state of mind I was in earlier. Sports has done a great deal for me—seeing that I can do something, because now there’s something to look forward to. Even better than that has been being back with the same group of folks I was with for most of my life, being back with the military.”
Now settled in Florida, Sua and his wife, Shannon, stay busy with their three children’s school events and practices, as well as Sua’s busy training schedule.
“I just started sailing and am moving on to an advanced course. We just finished our wheelchair rugby season and I’m trying to find that next competitive drive. I’m getting better at handcycling. I love wheelchair rugby, but handcycling—just riding and getting out there and being free—has been amazing. If I had never gone to the Games I wouldn’t know about any of this.”