Steve Cash and perseverance
Team USA sled hockey goalie overcame childhood cancer and amputation
Ms. Diehl offers a big grin, but the teacher's welcome isn't enough to calm her newest kindergartner. Not when there's at least 25 cold, perplexed stares fixed on him as he carefully works his way past his whispering classmates to the open seat at the back of the room.
It's the first day of school in Overland, Mo., and Steve Cash can't hide his bald head, freshly shaved since the start of chemotherapy. Nor can he hide the creaking noise he makes when he awkwardly takes a step with his new right prosthetic leg.
As the day goes on, Cash's classmates pepper him with questions -- the kind full of blunt straightforwardness that only young children ask.
"What's wrong with your leg?"
"Why do you walk funny?"
"Why do you look like that?"
In October 1992, Cash was diagnosed with a type of bone cancer in his right knee called osteosarcoma. When he was three, he underwent complex surgery that resulted in the amputation and recreation of his leg. Doctors amputated from right below the knee up to the top of Cash's femur. They then took the perfectly healthy lower part of his leg, turned it around so that Cash's heel and ankle could be made into a knee joint and attached it to his hip. Cash would wear a prosthetic from his "knee" down, the first of which had a wooden core that produced the creaking noise when Cash walked.
Learning how to be upright and ambulatory following surgery took six months, and even then they weren't skills he mastered. Coming to terms with his new life took time as well, roughly eight years.
His peers often didn't help much. As Cash struggled throughout elementary school to learn how to use his new "knee" and run as if he had two normal legs, his classmates would bully and mock him.
"That really drew a lot of attention," Cash explained of having to kick his right leg outward and swing it around when he would attempt to run.
"I kind of dreaded going outside and playing with the other kids."
Some days brought worse ridicule than others. He'd come home from school and lock himself in the tiny bedroom he shared with his three older brothers. He would lie on his bed and wonder why he had to go through all of this.
Growing up, all Cash wanted to do was be like everybody else. With two of his brothers interested in hockey, it wasn't long after Cash was walking around with his prosthetic that the 5-year-old was strapping on hand-me-down Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Rollerblades for the first time.
Cash spent countless hours practicing skating with the help of his mother on the patio out behind the family's gaudy, yellow, aluminum-sided two-story house on Osgood Avenue. It was during these hours that Cash was changed. He felt free.
"I didn't want to give that feeling up," he said.
When he was 8, Cash got his first taste of hockey. After duct taping pillows and newspapers to his legs for makeshift pads, Cash would stand in front of the fence in his backyard and face shot after shot from his brothers. Before Cash knew it, five or six hours after school would pass as afternoons gave way to nightfall.
"All I ever wanted to do was get home, put on the skates or put the pads on and play hockey with my brothers," Cash explained. "It was really kind of like a paradise and it still is to this day."
By the time he was a sophomore in high school, Cash had followed his older brother James' path to the net. All the years spent playing stand-up inline and ice hockey against older kids on his brothers' teams had turned Cash into a standout and starter on the varsity inline team.
That same school year, Steve was at a local inline tournament in St. Louis when he met Mike Dowling. Dowling was at the event promoting a sled hockey team he coached, and told Cash a little bit about the adaptive sport that has its players propel themselves with two 3-foot-long hockey sticks that have spikes attached.
That weekend, Steve was on the ice with Dowling's Disabled Athlete Sports Association Jr. Blues on a trial basis. It wasn't long until the trial became permanent.
Steve's success between the pipes didn't skip a beat as he transitioned to sled hockey. In January 2005, he was spotted at a tournament in Detroit by the coach of the United States men's national team and an invitation to try out in Colorado Springs, Colo., soon followed.
Five months later, Steve was on an airplane for the first time by himself as he flew out to Colorado. The tryout was a three-day jaunt, but he made the most of it, giving up only one goal through four scrimmages against the adults. By the end of the weekend, Steve had made the team.
"It totally changed the way I felt about his future and what he could accomplish," his mother, Tracy, said. "I always kind of feared that he wouldn't be what he would've been without cancer."
Having a disability doesn't necessarily make you who you are. It's just something that forces you to live life in a different way." -- Steve Cash
Learning now how to play the sport he loved in a sled wasn't Steve's only new experience. Sled hockey provided his first encounters with others just like him.
Prior to joining the Jr. Blues, Steve had never met someone else with a disability. His first practices with the team, and with kids younger than he was, and sometimes with disabilities worse than his, were an eye opener.
"Looking back on it now, I can see why other kids stared at me," he said, remembering that it would take him 15 to 20 minutes to get ready for practice, but some of his teammates would require 45 to 60 before they could get on the ice.
His teammates on the Jr. Blues showed Steve how fortunate he was. Looking around, he realized his disability and life could be much worse and that there was more to life than what he had previously known.
Despite it all, Steve was still uncomfortable being around others with disabilities. It wouldn't be until after his first couple of trips with the men's national team that this unease would go away.
It was then that he realized, "Having a disability doesn't necessarily make you who you are," he said. "It's just something that forces you to live life in a different way."
The atmosphere inside UBC Thunderbird Arena during the gold-medal game of the 2010 Vancouver Paralympics was not like anything Steve had experienced. He was on Team USA when it won bronze at the Torino Games, but he was a backup in Italy. It isn't like being a starter in a country that, when it comes to hockey, vehemently loathes anything red, white and blue.
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At 1:40 into the second period of the decisive contest between the U.S. and Japan, action on the ice was whistled dead. Japanese captain Takayuki Endo was awarded a penalty shot after being interfered with from behind on a breakaway resulting in Endo barreling into Cash.
One of Japan's biggest offensive threats was now looking to even the game at 1-1.
The arena rumbled as nearly 8,000 fans made their presence known before Endo took the puck at center ice. Many were Canadian and chanting in unison, practically pleading for their neighbors from the south to fall short.
"You could feel it through your bones," Cash remembers. "It's something that I can feel to this day."
As Endo touched the puck, Cash sat still in the crease, focusing on the moment and what it would mean if he stopped the penalty shot. Endo, a double amputee known for his ability to change direction, came skating down the slot.
"Don't commit too early," Cash thought to himself, waiting for Endo to make the first move. "Be calm and be composed."
But the move never came. Instead, Endo snapped a shoulder-height shot toward Steve's glove side, which the netminder snatched.
With 1:55 left in the game and momentum on its side, the U.S. went on the power play still leading 1-0. The Japanese tried to kill the penalty and equalize on the scoreboard, but the Americans continued to work the puck. Less than 40 seconds after Noritaka Ito was sent off for holding in his offensive zone, Taylor Lipsett deflected a shot from the low slot past Japan's off-balance goalie for the U.S.'s gold medal-insuring second goal of the game.
As the American flag arose high above the ice toward the end of the gold medal ceremony, the national anthem played over the public address system. Steve and his teammates sang along, their arms draped around each other. The medal dangling from Steve's neck felt weightless.
"We worked so hard," said Cash, whose shutout performance in each of Team USA's five games in Vancouver set an individual Paralympic record that, in the current system, can never be broken.
"It was that moment when we were singing the national anthem that I knew that we were going to be bound as brothers forever."
Following the Vancouver Games, Cash became a local celebrity at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where he is studying business. He was featured on the cover of a magazine that's published at the university and people stopped him to shake his hand and hear his stories.
As time has passed and people have come and gone on campus, Cash has become another face in the crowd. For someone who so badly wanted to be normal growing up, he doesn't mind the lack of attention as he juggles college courses with strengthening his post-hockey résumé, all the while preparing to defend his gold medal at the Sochi Paralympics in March.
Those close to him, though, see the 24-year-old for something more: an example of perseverance.
Older brother James explains, "Anything I am going to run into in life is probably just a speed bump compared to the mountain that he climbed over."