Now we head to the Central Valley where a group of kids are adapting to adversity on the ice. They're learning how to play sled hockey. It's like ice hockey for people who've been injured or born with a disability. The U.S. has won two sled hockey gold medals in the Paralympics, most recently in 2010. Reporter: Alice Daniel
Pediatric surgeon Adam Gorra is in the rehab gym at Children's Hospital Central California near Fresno, egging on a very athletic Jordan Gifford who uses prostheses to run.
Gifford has a rare genetic disorder that causes limb deformities, but otherwise, he's just like any other 7-year-old. He's tried rock climbing and water skiing for free through the hospital's adaptive sports program, run solely by volunteers through donations and grants. Now he wants to try sled hockey, a program Gorra is starting. Gorra says play is a fundamental right of every kid.
"If you can find ways to get these kids to play," Gorra explains. "Because every child needs to play no matter what their abilities are."
Seventeen-year-old David Moreno is also very athletic. He played soccer and football last year at Tulare Union High School. But in September that changed.
"Me and my dad got in a car accident, and I broke my back," Moreno explains. "So I lost feeling from my waist down."
Moreno has already tried one adaptive sport -- rock climbing. But he says sled hockey sounds even better.
"I mean you can be aggressive in it, just like football and soccer, and use your body," Moreno says.
Sled hockey is like ice hockey, except the players move around in sleds with blades -- kind of like sitting in a giant ice skate. They propel themselves with the back ends of two shortened hockey sticks. Injured war veterans returning from the Middle East have taken up the sport to stay active, and it's gaining in popularity, especially as the U.S. is the defending world champion in the Paralympics. Still, there are only a handful of teams in California.
Brian Rathfelder was paralyzed five years ago when his motorcycle turned over on him. He's come up from Bakersfield to the holiday ice rink in downtown Fresno to teach sled hockey basics to Dr. Gorra, other volunteers and kids with disabilities.
"We get into playing this," Rathfelder says. "You're really going to see the fun in it. I know you guys are gonna be ready to come back for tomorrow, and do it all over again."
He says there's no greater feeling than gliding on ice.
"I can't compare it to anything else in the world," Rathfelder says. "To glide across the ice is, you know, such a liberating feeling."
Sled hockey is very expensive; it's gear-intensive and can require a lot of grassroots resources. Some volunteers rig up a bulky glove on 7-year-old Jordan's small right hand. Finally everyone is in their sled with helmets and gloves secured. Rathfelder offers some advice.
"If you guys haven't figured it out already, you'll notice that if you push with your right arm, you'll head to the left direction, and if you push with your left arm, you'll head to the right direction," he explains. "And if you push with both, most of the time you'll go straight."
Dr. Gorra, who plays ice hockey, asks if he can do a hockey stop in a sled.
Using his two shortened hockey sticks, Rathfelder pushes his way over to talk to Moreno, the high schooler who recently lost mobility in his legs. Before Moreno glides gracefully around the ice again, I ask him what he thinks.
"Well it's my first time actually being on an ice rink," Moreno says. "It's very fun. I mean, you can move pretty quick; slide all over the place."
His parents and two sisters stand outside the rink watching. His father, Ernie Moreno, was in the car accident that broke his son's back.
"I want to keep him active on all the sports we can," Moreno says. "I want to keep his mind rolling, so he's not thinking other stuff, you know?"
Physician Jennifer Crocker founded the all-volunteer adaptive sports program at Children's Hospital Central California five years ago. She says adaptive sports give kids new goals, especially after a sudden paralysis.
"It's the biggest change in anyone's life that you can really imagine," Crocker says. "It's often devastating and tragic at first, for the family as well, and then this provides a very different perspective."
Charlie Avery knows this well. He's also on the ice today teaching kids the sport. When he was four, he got hit in a random drive-by shooting in East Bakersfield.
"We had videos of me walking before, and I was like, 'man, I don't even remember this,'" Avery says.
He's been in a wheelchair ever since, and at 22, says sled hockey makes life richer.
"A great workout just pushing around," Avery says. "It's a thrill just being on the ice."
Pediatrician Adam Gorra knows what the ice means to kids who feel liberated as they glide around. His goal is to find sponsors and form a thriving sled hockey team within the next two years.