The best advice for managing life and travel with a disability, Suhr says, is something he learned while he was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point: “Stay flexible and keep a sense of humor.” It’s a motto that has served him well in the 30-plus years since he sustained a C5 SCI near Fort Benning, Georgia, a few months after he’d graduated from the academy. West Point is designed to push your mental and physical limits. “You need to be able to embrace the suck,” Suhr says with a laugh. The same applies to the years after his accident. “There are so many potential frustrations that we have, if we’re not ready to take those with a little bit of humor and some flexibility, we’re going to be screwed.”
Perhaps the most obvious times that abiding by this maxim comes in handy is when traveling, as Suhr has often used international wheelchair rugby tournaments as jumping-off points to see the wider world. Suhr relates the time when he traveled to Venice with a group of quads, members of U.S. Wheelchair Rugby team, in 1995. “We ended up in a less than ideal hotel situation. We were dropped off at the wrong boat stop, and had to get carted over 10-12 flights of stairs just to get to it. The hotel was virtually inaccessible — some rooms were glorified closets. There was an elevator, but we had to take wheels off just to fit in. A lot of the guys packed their bags and left the next day, but a few of us stayed, along with one of the nondisabled team staff. It might not have been perfect, but we enjoyed the next few days and got to see Venice. If you’re not able to adjust and go with things, sometimes you’re going to miss out.”
That willingness to be flexible has stayed with Suhr as he’s become a father. Suhr met his wife, Trisha, a physical therapist, at a rugby tournament. Together they have twin boys, Daniel and Conor, now 13. “After the 2012 Paralympics, we all went to Edinburgh, Scotland, with Trisha’s parents. One day Trisha and her parents went wandering in the city. I hung with the boys so they could get some school stuff done and asked them if we should go to a restaurant near the hotel, but they wanted to go to a pub we had been to a few days before. Conor liked the hamburgers, and Daniel wanted the haggis. Of course, the pub was a steep, hilly mile or so away, but I told them, ‘If you can help me get there …’ We ended up having a lot of fun as all three of us pushed my chair up the hills and over the cobblestones.”
How Did I Get Here?
Put Me in, Coach
Suhr didn’t have much of a choice about becoming a coach. “I started coaching rugby in ’91,” he says. “The sports director of the EPVA at the time was coaching us and he needed to get back to doing more of his job, so he kind of dropped it into my lap without even consulting me. All the guys were comfortable with it, so in the long run it ended up working out better for everyone.”
But the most valuable thing he sees in sports has nothing to do with the outcomes of games. “It’s about giving people the opportunity to grow in different ways,” he says. “They can come out and be active, and learn from their teammates. At a practice people aren’t bitching about how bad life in a chair is, they’re having fun and competing. People with new injuries, or even someone who doesn’t start playing until many years after an injury, can really learn from that. They learn how to be more positive and proactive.”
Can’t Live Without:
Ergo seating [an alternative method of angling seat tubes, offered by many manual wheelchair manufacturers] makes a huge difference for me. I’m way more stable and it’s much easier to push. I think my posture’s better, which makes my breathing better.
Fast as a Speeding Glacier:
My rugby nickname is Glacier. Since it’s self-inflicted, I have to be OK with it. Describe your speed as “glacial” one time and bam, instant nickname.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
I’ve been a member since before there was a United Spinal! I first got involved with the EPVA because they had a big presence in the rehab hospital, and they got me motivated to go do stuff outside of the hospital. But I stayed involved because it was a good way to help people move forward after their injuries.