The soft, late December sunlight filters through the trees in upstate New York’s Winona State Forest as Augusto “Goose” Pérez pushes up a snowy incline, arms aching from lactic acid buildup and sweat glistening on his forehead.
It's early afternoon a few days before New Year's and the 41-year-old U.S. citizen born in Spain is chugging through one of his grueling workouts in the hopes of making the U.S. Nordic ski team for the upcoming Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Cross-country skiing is a brutal sport that leaves the world’s best athletes literally falling face first in the snow at the end of a race, and for Pérez – who lost his entire left leg to cancer 10 years ago – the sport is even harder because he must compete with only the use of his two arms.
Pérez came to the U.S. while in high school to play soccer, but remained after graduation to attend college and to coax a pretty Puerto Rican girl named Brenda Calderón to marry him.
“When I first met him I thought he was so ugly and that my girlfriends had lied to me,” Calderón said. “But he started sending me letters and visiting me and eventually won me over."
Married and working as the director of a nonprofit for at-risk youth, Pérez was beginning to live the American Dream. That ended abruptly in 2000, when the then-28 year old was diagnosed with soft-tissue sarcoma, a particularly rare form of cancer that develops in the body’s connective tissue. He was given less than a 30 percent chance of surviving five years because the sarcoma is resistant to chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Defying the odds, over the span of 14 years, Pérez has pushed back against the cancer time and time again, but the nefarious disease keeps recurring — in 2003 it got so bad that he decided to have his left leg removed in an effort to save his life.
“I’ve only cried once through my whole fight with cancer,” Pérez told Fox News Latino. “It was when I had to tell my brother I was losing my leg, because we grew up playing soccer together.”
Dealing with an excruciating case of phantom limb syndrome and the constant specter that his next bout with cancer will be his last, Pérez could have chosen a permanent seat on the couch and called it quits. Instead he immediately launched into strenuous physical activity.
“The day after I left the hospital I was doing laps around my neighborhood on crutches,” he said. “My neighbors must have thought I was crazy, but I was already getting cranky being out of action.”
Without a leg, however, soccer was out of the question and Pérez needed to find a new athletic outlet. Enter curling.
Chess On Ice
Curling is like a very long, very cold game of shuffleboard on ice in which teams take turns sliding large, round stones across the surface toward a mark while teammates use brooms to sweep the surface of the ice in front of the stone in order to control its speed and direction. Nicknamed “chess on ice,” curling wasfirst introduced to the Olympics in 1924, then took a 74-year competitive hiatus before being brought back to the games at Nagano in 1998 and was welcomed to the Paralympics at the 2006 Torino Games.
Coming from the Mediterranean climate of Spain, Pérez had very little experience on the ice with two legs – much less one – and had never tried curling until October 2005. Seven weeks later Pérez made the 2006 U.S. Paralympic Wheelchair Curling team and was on his way to Torino.
In the next four years, Pérez would go to two Olympic Games (Torino and Vancouver in 2010), lead his team to a Bronze medal at the 2008 Wheelchair Curling World Championship and in 2008 became the first wheelchair athlete to be named USA Curling Male Athlete of the Year.
Despite the trips to the Olympics and all the accolades that accompanied that, the sport still couldn’t quell Pérez’s active spirit. By 2008 he had decided to leave the curling sheet behind for something a little more physically demanding.
Within an hour’s drive from Pérez’s home in East Syracuse, New York, are Lake Ontario, the smaller Oneida and Onondaga Lakes, the Seneca and Oswego rivers and countless other bodies of water that dot the landscape of the state’s Finger Lakes region. Pérez found his next athletic endeavor in this water-rich environment.
“I wanted to compete in a sport that was more physically demanding, allowing me to be in tip-top shape to put up a fight against the disease,” Pérez said.
At first that outlet was canoe racing, where in 2008 he became the disabled world champion in the 500-meter sprint and the following year he and teammate Tammy Hetke won the world championship in the mixed doubles 200-meter sprint.
Pérez, however, still harbored dreams of winter glory and in 2011 – without any prior experience in the ski world besides a couple of trips to the local slopes – decided to join the U.S. Paralympics Nordic and Biathlon Team. Even with the arm strength built up from canoeing, he had a hard time adjusting to the new event.
Without a left leg, Pérez perches his body atop a retrofitted, aluminum chair that is anchored to a set of cross-country skis. Instead of using his legs like a non-handicapped skier, Pérez is forced to rely on his arms and upper torso to dig into the snow and propel him along race course ranging from one kilometer to 50 km.
“He was a train wreck,” John Farra, the director of U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing said of Pérez’s first World Cup race in Norway. “He fell off his skis every 100 meters.”
While a prodigy he may not have been, Pérez’s dedicated work ethic and commitment to helping his teammates earned him the respect and admiration of his teammates and coaches. Logging three to four hours in the morning training, followed by weightlifting routines and yoga sessions, the novice soon became one of the best skiers on the squad.
“He’s one of those guys who’s totally dedicated to what he does,” Farra said. “That says something, especially when you’re dealt a hand like he is.”
In October of 2012 – the same year that both his mother and uncle passed away from cancer – Pérez received the news that his own cancer had returned for the fourth time. Throughout an intensive round of radiation treatment, Pérez continued to compete – doing push-ups when his doctor told him to lay off weight-bearing activities and sneaking a trip to the Paralympic Nordic World Cup between treatments.
“The biggest reason driving me to compete at the World Cup was that I wanted to fulfill a promise to my mother that I would meet the standards and finish in the top 10,” Pérez wrote in an essay for the anti-doping organization TrueSport. “I was able to meet and exceed Paralympic standards and made myself eligible for both Nordic and Biathlon.”
The U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing team will finalize its roster for Sochi on January 31, and while no official announcement has been made, Farra said that given Pérez’s position in what will be the 12-man team, there is a very good chance he will makeit.
“It’s hard to imagine a situation where he wouldn’t be on the team,” Farra added. “We’re pretty excited for him.”
While his chances of making the Sochi team are more-or-less secure, that is about the only guarantee Pérez has. From his health to his family’s financial situation, nothing has come easily for Pérez.
Every day, when Pérez heads out for his neighborhood training on what amounts to a modified skateboard he uses when the snow melts, he is accompanied by his coach, nutritionist and manager. Peddling next to him is his wife, who besides taking care of the couple’s 10 year old twins has managed Pérez’s life ever since his cancer diagnosis in 2000.
“I tell people that I have triplets,” Calderón said. “It’s a lot of hard work but we have a system now that helps.”
That system, which entails managing what Pérez eats, ushering him doctors visits, making sure he gets his rest and handling some of the family financial affairs, has become a full-time job and has left no room for her to work on the side.
Both Pérez and Calderón have not worked since the cancer diagnosis and have had to rely on government checks and a small stipend from the U.S. Olympic team.
“We get by on social security and credit cards,” Pérez said.
This has made life difficult for the family trying to maintain their household with Pérez’s illness, two young children and the hectic travel schedule of an Olympic athlete. In the last month, Pérez was out west for the Olympic trials before immediately heading to Florida and preparing for Sochi.
Pérez’s self-funded Olympic hopes took another hit in October 2011, when the couple was charged with fraud in Onondaga County for failing to list $23,500 they received from the U.S. Olympic Committee on a Medicaid application.
The couple fought back at first, but in the end they found it was cheaper to pay the government than continue.
“It’s hard every day for us to just survive,” Calderón said. “But I’m happy that he can live this way and do what he loves.”
Skiing To Live
The loss of his leg, the looming threat of cancer, a parlous financial situation — all mean nothing when Pérez is competing. And that is exactly why he does what he does.
With the Sochi Paralympics less than two months away, Pérez is in full training mode and thinking only of making it to Russia. His latest diagnosis puts his chances of surviving another 5 years at 15 percent, and while he must go to the doctors every 90 days to have his cancer threat closely monitored, Pérez says that he forgets all the problems when he is out in the woods on his skis.
“You make life what you want out of it,” he said of sports. “Sports are a freedom from not having to think about my concerns and permission to keep on living.”
Follow Andrew O'Reilly on Twitter @aoreilly84.