Still Fighting to Win

The Penn State Ability Athletics program is nationally recognized for the competitive opportunities it offers disabled track and field athletes like U.S. military veteran and College of Engineering sophomore Max Rohn.

"As I turn to my left—boom—that's when the explosion goes off."

It was May 2, 2009, and Max Rohn, a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy, was in the third vehicle of a convoy headed for the Camp Baharia Marine Corps Base just outside of Fallujah, Iraq. 

"On our drive back, my vehicle was hit by an RPG-3 grenade. My door came open and punched a hole right next to my right leg," says Rohn.

Max Rohn prepares to throw the shot at a recent competition.

International Invictus Games Competition

Max Rohn competed in three events at the 2014 Invictus Games—shot put, discus, and sitting volleyball—for which he brought home two gold medals and one silver. The games brought together hundreds of wounded, ill, and injured servicemen and women from across the globe.

Image: Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee

When he regained consciousness, his first priority was checking on the other passengers in the vehicle. Then he looked down to assess his own injury—which was severe.

Over the next two years, Rohn underwent fourteen surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage to his right leg. His fifteenth surgery removed the leg, just below the knee.

"When you're hurt in the hospital, the first thing you always say is, 'When do I get to go back?' Then you start coming to grips with it," he says. "That's when you make some kind of claim to either getting back to where you were or doing something like a physical accomplishment. With a physical injury, you have to do some kind of physical activity to counterbalance it." 

Max Rohn throws the discus at Penn State's indoor track and field facility

Indoor Track and Field Training

Max Rohn perfects his discus throw at Penn State's indoor track and field facility as Ability Athletics Coach Teri Jordan looks on. Penn State Ability Athletics is one of only two schools in the country that offers training and competition in throwing sports for disabled athletes.

Image: Michelle Bixby

So Rohn began competing in the Warrior Games, a Paralympic-style event for U.S. service members and veterans.

Ability Athletics

It was the Warrior Games where Rohn first met Penn State Ability Athletics Coach Teri Jordan. Jordan was serving as a track coach for Navy Safe Harbor, an organization that coordinates the non-medical care of wounded, ill, and injured Sailors.

"When I first met Max, he was still at the hospital and had not yet made the decision to have the amputation," recalls Jordan. "I saw him evolve over the years from being in a lot of pain to the happier person he is now." 

Watching this kind of evolution in athletes is what inspires Jordan to do what she does. For more than twenty years, she worked as a women's track and field coach, then transitioned into working with disabled athletes through the Ability Athletics program. 

"There are not many programs in the country that have given opportunities for persons with disabilities to have competition and opportunities to compete. Penn State has taken a lead on that and has become recognized on a national as well as world level."—Teri Jordan

Penn State Ability Athletics provides opportunities for disabled Penn State students and community members in wheelchair basketball, swimming, weightlifting and power lifting, and track and field events including throwing and wheelchair racing. 

The Ability Track and Field team, of which Rohn is a member, offers year-round training and opportunities for national and international competition. The Penn State program is one of only three in the country that offers track and field events for the disabled and one of only two that offers the throwing events that Rohn has made his specialty. 

Members of the Penn State Ability Track and Field team, including Max Rohn and Coach Teri Jordan.

Penn State Ability Track and Field Team

Members of the Penn State Ability Track and Field team — including (left to right) Ed Bonfiglio, intern Sidney Sanabria-Robles, coach Teri Jordan and Max Rohn — compare stats during an outdoor training session. The team trains year-round for national and international competition. 

Image: Penn State

"There are not many programs in the country that have given opportunities for persons with disabilities to have competition and opportunities to compete," says Jordan. "Penn State has taken a lead on that and has become recognized on a national as well as world level." 

Jordan's efforts at Penn State over the last fifteen years with Ability Athletics have given several disabled athletes a chance to grow to elite levels. She has coached two Paralympic athletes, six world champions, and five Para-Pan American athletes.

"At every turn, I get support from the University. I don't think I could get a better opportunity anywhere else."—Max Rohn

"I think that Ability Athletics gives our athletes the confidence that not only can they succeed on the athletic field but also in the classroom," says Jordan. "The dedication and commitment it takes to be successful as an athlete also carries over into the classroom." 

From Sailor to Student

As Rohn began to compete more seriously, he recognized that he would benefit from a more structured training program to help him improve. Jordan began to encourage him to apply to Penn State.

"Most of my family never went to college, so it was always kind of a dream of mine to get a degree," says Rohn. 

"I think that Ability Athletics gives our athletes the confidence that not only can they succeed on the athletic field but also in the classroom."—Teri Jordan

Before retiring from the Navy in March 2013, he applied and was accepted to Penn State. Currently a sophomore in the College of Engineering, he hopes to pursue a career dedicated to advancing the technology of prosthetic limbs. 

"With this war, the advancements in prosthetics have increased so much."

He recalls, "When I was at [Walter Reed National Military Medical Center], my prosthetist would call me when product representatives would come in, and I'd try out various limbs to see if I could break them. That's what I want to do; I think that would be useful for my community."

"Competing is the easy part for me, but the classroom changes my focus. I like it because I know I can't compete forever. I need to be well rounded."—Max Rohn

Though going back to college has offered Rohn a new set of challenges, he says he feels at home here at Penn State, thanks to Ability Athletics and other University resources that have helped him each step of the way.

"At every turn, I get support from the University," he says. "I don't think I could get a better opportunity anywhere else."

The Drive to Succeed

Over the past few years, Rohn has had growing success in national and international competitions, particularly in throwing events like shot put and discus. From the Invictus Games, held in London last summer, he brought home gold medals in shot put and discus and a silver medal in sitting volleyball. 

But Rohn had to work through a number of challenges to get to where he is today. When he first started competing in the Warrior Games after his amputation, he wanted to be a runner. 

He eventually found his niche elsewhere, however: in throwing.

"It's simple but complex at the same time," he says. "Unless you do it, you don't have an appreciation for how technical and difficult it is."

Max Rohn prepares to release the disc during an indoor training session.

Perfecting the Throw

Max Rohn's training schedule includes weight training three days a week and throwing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Regular training with Coach Teri Jordan has vastly improved Rohn's competition results, he says.

Image: Michelle Bixby

Rohn has been invited to several national and world championship events and is currently training for Nationals this summer. From there, he's aiming for the world championship games in Qatar this fall and next year's Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

The combination of sport and school keeps Rohn focused and moving forward, he says: "Both sides help each other. Competing is the easy part for me, but the classroom changes my focus. I like it because I know I can't compete forever. I need to be well rounded."

Throughout his recovery and subsequent growth as a competitive track and field athlete, his dedication to succeed and openness to new opportunities have stayed constant. 

"What goes wrong with a lot of people in similar situations to mine is, you had this great life picked out. Then your world gets rocked, and you think, 'Now what?'" he says. 

"When life happens, you find out what kind of person you are."—Max Rohn

Rohn admits that he had to let go of a lot of plans over the course of his recovery—like returning to the battlefield or running a marathon—but he never gave up on success.

"As soon as I gave up trying to figure it all out, everything started to open up. When you don't deny an opportunity, you just see where it takes you," he says. "When life happens, you find out what kind of person you are."