Hero inspired by heroic skater

It was an odd confluence of kindred spirits in the glow of a television screen in the early morning hours.

On the screen was Emily Scott, a 25-year-old member of the U.S. women’s short track speed skating team competing in the Winter Olympics. Back in the United States Gabriel Torney, 35, a U.S. Army Warrant Officer (CW3) and combat-wounded Kiowa pilot watched intensely.

“I didn’t know who she was until the other night. I couldn’t sleep and watched three 1500M heats. What got me were the finals. I don’t know why, and it may not seem like much for some people, but to see her get up after getting wiped out and finish that race made me so incredibly proud,” Torney said. “I was shot up in Iraq a while back and I’ve been in kind of a tailspin ever since. I haven’t felt good about much of anything in a long time but that moment made me want to point to her on the TV and tell the world that I’m an American… just like her!”

Shot up is a humble understatement. While on a combat mission over Tal Afar, Iraq in 2005, small arms fire nearly took down his helicopter. Ground fire wounded him in both legs and took the life of his close friend and co-pilot. It was a harrowing scene broadcast on Al Jazeera.

His small helicopter circled and then went nearly straight up before escaping the barrage of bullets. For his heroism Torney received a Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart.

Since being wounded he has confronted physical and mental pain, years of recovery and endless trips to doctors and boards.

He battles insomnia on most nights. It was the sleeplessness that had him watching the Olympics when most people were asleep. He was captivated by Scott’s story. He found it amazing; how she went from roller rinks in Missouri to the ice of Sochi.

He marveled at her journey and struggles. He saw that her mother and sister were in prison and how her father supported her dream.

Scott’s chosen sport is often called “NASCAR on ice” due to its pileups, crashes and unlucky tumbles. It can be unfair, unlucky, unforgiving and as random as a stray bullet. Speed skaters must have a mentality similar to helicopter pilots. There has to be a level of coolness amid the stress, the razor-like edge of the skates and a helicopter’s blades.

“She lost her funding and self-funded to get to Sochi. She barely had money,” said Torney. “She grew up hard and worked towards a dream.”

Torney watched as Scott was nearly pushed down by another skater (who was penalized) in the semi finals. He smiled when she qualified for the finals.

Then there was the final.

“She was wiped out by another skater who also took out a third skater. As the fallen skaters skated off the rink, she got up. She kept skating behind the pack. With zero hope she still finished the race,” said Torney. “Seeing her still skating made me extremely proud.”

He recalled a few lines from the 2006 film Rocky Balboa.

“Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward!”

Later that day, Torney posted a message on Scott’s Facebook page recounting just how proud she made him feel. Scott’s father saw the message and answered it.

“I know you are a wonderful person and I thank you for all you’ve have done for our country, hold your head high, you are definitely a hero in my eyes,” said Craig Scott, Emily’s father from Sochi.

Torney replied, “Please thank her when she gets back for the reminder and the inspiration. Thank her for her display of sheer American will and her undefeatable attitude.”

Heroes also need heroes. Torney will be watching when Scott competes again this week.