By Erin Cartaya
“Life goes on. You can focus on the past…or look at your life right now, realize you still have goals and dreams, and start reaching for them.”
If there’s one way to describe Anthony Pone, it’s that he is a fighter. Enlisted in the US Army in 2000, Anthony was between deployment missions to Iraq when he ended up in a devastating auto accident. Stuck in the car for 3 hours, unable to move and his legs damaged, many didn’t know if he would survive, but he fought.
He flat-lined at Richmond Virginia Medical Center a few times; again, he fought and was resuscitated. They had him medically sedated for three months from January to April 2002 and moved him to Neurology Unit to ensure there was no trauma. While sedated, the doctors were all doubtful of his recovery. Each time his family came to say goodbye, he returned a little bit stronger. Because he is a fighter. There was too much he had to accomplish. Life was waiting for him.
After being released from the hospital in May 2002, Anthony moved back home to Philadelphia. But what was he going to do? He asked himself. He was trying to figure out his life after being medically retired in 2003. Being a successful collegiate athlete, he figured sports was out of the question now that he was in a wheelchair. Little did he know, his sports career was far from over.
Wheelchair Basketball? Who’d Have Thought
From 2002-2004, Anthony tried to find his niche in different avenues, which led him into the music business, managing and producing. He had a knack for it, but it wasn’t the same; he wanted more.
And then he heard about wheelchair basketball.
He was reluctant to the idea because he didn’t think it would be enough. He joined a local team in Philadelphia anyways and was pleasantly surprised. “I thought it was just people being pushed around slowly in hospital chairs, and when one person makes a basket and everybody stops and claps, and there wasn’t much to it.” He got out there and got a quick lesson about how intense the sport is. They were moving fast; it was athletic, competitive, and had room for athletes to improve constantly. Everyone had their own specially designed chair. Anthony fell in love on the first day. He played for Philadelphia for a few months before being approached by colleges asking him to join their teams.
As he got more into the sport, he was entertaining offers left and right. He was motivated to learn. “I’ll try anything. I don’t like to leave any stone unturned.” He already had an associate’s degree, so he went to Texas to check out collegiate wheelchair basketball. While working on two degrees, he participated in the 2013 National Veteran Warrior Games and met the Wolfpack Wheelchair team from San Diego (his first date with destiny, if you will). He’ll casually tell you that he won some gold medals, but he is most proud of meeting athletes going through similar life changes and getting involved in the community. It reminded him of being back in the Army. He was missing the camaraderie, the brotherhood, and being a part of a team. It was what kept his wheels turning.
To be a True Athlete, You Have to Adapt
He started getting emails from around the world to play on their basketball teams and went overseas to play in 2013. Several years later, in 2017, he would find The Wolfpack again, come back to San Diego to play on their team, meet Warrior Foundation co-founder Sandy Lehmkuhler, move into Freedom Station, and become one of the facility’s most integral moral leaders. Because of Sandy and the Warrior Foundation, his worries disappeared, and he hasn’t looked back.
He still plays with the Wolfpack while also training for the US Paralympic trials with hopes of competing in France in 2024 for shotput. “Being at Freedom Station taught me that anything is possible and anything can happen. But you have to try.” He continues to help with fundraisers and community events. “There’s no way I can pay back for everything they’ve done, but I can pay it forward.” He’s the go-to mentor at Freedom Station, teaching skills and helping others discove the tools they might need to find their purpose in life. Anthony is more than a Wolfpack player. He’s a leader. He’s seen many veterans join the team and move on to bigger and greater things. Some have gone to play international ball. Some have competed in the Paralympics. Anthony uses his gifts to help people move forward. He uses sports to keep his edge. It brings adversity, forcing him to problem-solve his way to success. “I knew I had gifts; I knew I had skills, but I didn’t know how to tap into everything. Now I can focus on those skills and share them and help someone else in this position move forward.”
Being a Leader – Motivation is Key
To live at Freedom Station is a family feeling he misses from Military life. Having a group of people with similar stories or an understanding where each person is coming from makes him feel at home. Having someone to listen to makes him feel like more of himself. On top of that, he has the opportunity to give back. He volunteers, helping others who are transitioning into civilian life. He takes the athlete mentality of “how do I get better?” and “how does this affect everybody else?” and applies it to the Military mentality of “how can I make someone newly injured or finding their way through life adapt?” He knows. He’s been through it too. He’s a person people can talk to and whom many go to for support.
“Freedom Station helps you develop a voice. You can find one where you didn’t know you had one before or how to utilize it. It’s a unique feeling. Because when you come here, you feel at home.” Navigating this type of transition, you just don’t know; you’re wandering around lost. It’s easy to settle into a path that might not be the most beneficial. And that’s a lonely feeling not knowing the power of community.
“I’ve lived my life doing everything myself. I don’t want to ask for help, but I’ve started to accept it. When someone asks to help me, I let them. I make sure they know that I am capable of doing things myself, BUT I will accept the help. It’s better not to be so hard all the time.”
Once an Athlete, Always an Athlete
Growing up an athlete, what happens when the definition of “sports” changes? When you get injured or lose hope in ever playing sports again? You heal, rehabilitate, and then get back into it. You have to decide to work yourself back into a passion. For adaptive sports, Anthony wants more people to know about it. It’s not what one would think. He wants people to see the work these athletes are putting into their respective sports.
“Life is phases and stages. You go through phases to get to new stages. You learn from each stage to get to the next phase. My story will get more refined as life goes on—you’re living life so much. Your story won’t change, but the way you tell it will. Everyone’s story is based on experience; I’m just waiting for my story to become more refined.”
Pay it Forward
Anthony only recently started talking about his time in the hospital. He didn’t want to focus on it. He’s found that when he tells the WHOLE story, people learn why he focuses on the parts he does. They can learn from it. “Maybe it will be important for someone else at some point down the road.”
With perspective comes new priorities and a new focus. Anthony is taking that same energy, knowledge and insight from his past and applying it to a new goal – a master’s degree in Sports Psychology. “I plan to take my own personal experiences and combine it with professional skills to help athletes – adaptive and able-bodied athletes.”
“Life goes on. You can focus on the past and live in the past, or you can look at your life right now, realize you still have goals and dreams, and start reaching for them. There’s a world going by, don’t get left behind.”