Michael Roggio, a 31-year-old Oviedo resident, spent seven years serving his country as a Naval air crewman rescue swimmer in the U.S. Navy. Shortly after his last deployment, he fell over debris that was left behind in a ladder well and fell an entire flight. His neck broken, Roggio was forced to retire.
It took him 10 months to get to a point where he could even take steps again. Now he is not only a veteran of the United States military but of the Invictus Games, an athletic event created by Prince Harry for wounded, ill and injured service men and women, both active duty and veteran. Roggio competed in May when the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex hosted the week-long event.
Roggio credits a major part of his recovery to the pool. With his spinal cord injury, he had to learn how to compensate for the nerve damage and resulting numbness by using other muscles. He took to the water to help the process.
“I don’t know if I would be where I am today if I wasn’t using the pool as an outlet,” he says.
To qualify for the Invictus Games, Roggio competed in the past three Warrior Games. He barely made it to the finish line in the first, he was more competitive in the second, and he stood on the podium to accept a medal in the third. Last year’s time qualified him for a spot in the Invictus Games.
When Roggio arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, he learned that he was bumped up a category. That meant instead of competing with other athletes with spinal cord injuries, he would compete with 24 other swimmers in the open category. In the preliminary round, Roggio swam the 100-meter freestyle race in 1:07:50 with Prince Harry at the sidelines. His personal best time pushed him into the final round.
“When I originally started out, I couldn’t push off the wall; I couldn’t push off the blocks,” Roggio says. “I’ve just evolved into this … where I’m going off the blocks and I’m in the toughest category.”
He struggled in the final round as water rushed into his lungs during his flip turn, but Roggio is proud of his achievements at the Invictus Games. He says the best part of the whole experience was joining the Invictus community – being part of a team, the camaraderie among athletes, and the motivation to reach his personal best.
“The whole experience has been extremely uplifting and I couldn’t feel better about it,” he says.
So what is his advice for other service members who may be recently injured?
“Don’t close yourself up in a house,” he says. “Don’t turn to other things to make yourself feel better like drugs or alcohol. That’s not a means to an end. You need to set realistic goals and work on them a day at a time.”
He knows firsthand the difficulty of starting over, but he persevered to come back from a devastating spinal cord injury. Others can do the same.
“The doctors gave me a really dismal prognosis, but I didn’t accept that,” he says. “I knew in my heart when they told me, that was not how it was going to go. I was going to push myself until I could achieve a normal lifestyle, until I could be the father figure for my daughter I want to be.”
Roggio plans to return to the Invictus Games next year or the following year. First, he says, he needs to work toward making improvements through training now that he is competing in the open class.
“I’m ready to take this thing to the next level,” he says.