At Summit High commencement, Paralympian, injured Marine Jimmy Sides to share story of how to adapt (podcast)
U.S. Paralympic snowboarder and Silverthorne resident Jimmy Sides can’t remember who his high school commencement speaker was in Gainesville, Florida, 17 years ago.
Back then, in the spring of 2001, there weren’t Snapchats and cellphone selfies to take while wearing a cap and gown. But the now-35-year-old Sides still knows what the 18-year-old Sides was thinking while sitting there with his graduating class. He was headed out for a beach trip to surf.
“I just remember being like, ‘Let’s hurry up and get this over with,’” Sides said.
Now twice as old, when Sides gives his commencement speech to Summit High’s graduating class on Saturday, he hopes his story will resonate.
His story in the 17 years since his own commencement is one of Sides’ initial 18-year-old open-mindedness about what his future might become. Maybe it was the Coast Guard, maybe it was university schooling or maybe it’d become something else all together.
His story soon became one of military service, sacrifice and loss. In July 2012, he lost his right hand and the vision in his left eye when he set off an improvised explosive device while serving as a U.S. Marine Corps. Staff Sergeant in Afghanistan.
LISTEN: Our unabridged podcast conversation with U.S. Paralympic snowboarder and former U.S. Marine Corps. Staff Sergeant Jimmy Sides of Silverthorne
That was the effective end of his service career. But it began more than 10 years earlier on Sept. 11, 2001, not soon after Summit High’s 2018 graduates were born.
Like many Americans, the eventual U.S. Paralympic snowboarder Sides can remember exactly where he was that morning. Fresh out of high school and recently recruited to serve in the Marines, Sides grabbed his skateboard and headed out for his job as a deli clerk at the grocery store Publix.
On the way he’d typically stop at his buddy’s house. But this morning wasn’t typical.
“He opened the door and didn’t say anything,” Sides recalled. “And I walked in and I started talking and just catching up and he just pointed to the TV and said: ‘Look.’”
From that moment forward, the path of Sides’ own personal adulthood was altered. At that tender, fresh-out-of-high-school age of 18, he doubled-down on his commitment to the Marine Corps. It was a decision that would not only lead to three tours of duty in Iraq and two in Afghanistan, but also his life-altering injury and eventual inclusion on the 2018 Pyeongchang Paralympic team.
In March of 2002, just six months later, he’d head to boot camp. A year after that, in April 2003, his boots were some of the first on the ground on the Iraq-Kuwait border. He was one of those first service members to cross the “line of departure” — an invisible line in the sand that not only began the war, but began his part in the longest in-shore invasion in Marine Corps history. It was 800 miles into the heart of Iraq.
Along the way, he’d pass the nomadic Bedouin people of the Arab desert. He’d glimpse the bright lights of Baghdad deep in the dark desert, seemingly from an unbelievable number of miles away.
And on those crisp April desert nights in Iraq, he’d also view the best stargazing he’s ever seen — Summit County night skies included.
“I remember that vividly,” he said, “waiting on movement at night in a little fighting hole or something or next to our trucks and gazing up at the stars.”
All of this came fewer than two years after he sat there at his own commencement and yearned for the Atlantic Ocean surf.
“I don’t remember having any fear,” Sides said of that first tour of duty. “I was with all my Marines, buddies. They all went through the same training I did, and we all had each other’s backs and we were all prepared to do whatever it took to make sure everyone came home.”
Nearly a decade and three tours of duty later, Sides returned to Afghanistan in 2012 after attending explosive ordinance disposal school. Now a staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, it was Sides’ duty to protect infantrymen from bombs in the ground.
And he loved it — that purpose he was provided alongside his fellow Marines.
“Being a Marine was everything to me, and being an EOD tech was more than everything to me,” Sides said. “That was my life.”
But no matter his passion or training, the IED he set off on July 15, 2012, was meant to harm an EOD tech like him. He had no chance.
With his robot malfunctioning, Sides dug into the hard sand and silt that had cemented since the rains passed through two weeks prior. Using the claw of a hammer, he dug through 2 inches of soil before it detonated.
He was knocked unconscious for 10 to 20 seconds before he woke up confused on his left side with debris falling and dust in the air.
That was the effective end of his service career. Six days later, he was shipped back to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Maryland.
When speaking to the Summit High grads on Saturday, Sides will relay the period that was the ensuing six months of his life. During this time period, terrible things happened, such as his abuse of alcohol and declining mental health after he got out of Walter Reed. He was unable at times to cope with the loneliness and stress of everyday life.
But there were also the positives, such as his invitation to The Hartford Disabled Sports USA Ski Spectacular in Breckenridge the following winter. That invitation eventually led to his new passion for snowboarding and his selection to the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics. While in South Korea, Sides finished in the top 15 in both snowboard cross and parallel banked slalom.
And at the Pyeongchang Games, Sides came in side-by-side at the opening ceremonies with a man named Ralph DeQuebec. Within the two weeks that was the Pyeongchang Games, DeQuebec won a gold medal with the U.S. sled hockey team.
But six years prior, just like Sides, DeQuebec was injured due to an IED incident. In the same platoon as Sides — though they weren’t friends at the time — DeQuebec was injured when an Afghan Army National stepped on an IED 10 feet away from him. DeQuebec lost his legs in the process.
At Walter Reed in the wake of their injuries, Sides and DeQuebec made a pact of sorts to move on. And that vision to the future eventually led to a promise for the duo: To compete together in Pyeongchang.
But well before they were together at the Paralympics, on Sides’ second day at Walter Reed, he took those first steps forward with his altered life. He got up and grabbed his IV and told the nurses he was going over to say hello to his buddy. He walked down the hall and got wind of DeQuebec’s room and introduced himself.
The only two who were hurt in that deployment, Sides wanted to be there for his fellow Marine, EOD tech and brother. He wanted to be there because he was mobile. He wanted to be there to show he could adapt, and so could DeQuebec.
And on Saturday at Summit High, that message of adapting your life no matter what arises will be a core part of Sides’ message.
“Stuff is going to present itself and you are going to keep going forward,” Sides said. “But it’s up to you to make that happen. You can either wallow and drown, or you can get back up.”
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