Battling all odds – Triple amputee wounded in Iraq attacks disability by competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu
Story by Mark Francescutti | Staff Writer for the Dallas News http://res.dallasnews.com/interactives/mma-amputee/
Joey Bozik is showing the martial arts community there are no excuses. The triple amputee competes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, a martial art similar to wrestling but with submission attacks.
Bozik, a 36-year-old retired Army sergeant from McKinney, has amputated legs, one longer than the other, and an amputated arm. His other arm has about 70 percent of its capability.
Yet there he was, escaping submission attempts and taking his full-bodied opponent down at a major tournament in Houston this month that attracted fighters from across the globe.
He ultimately lost by points at the single-elimination tournament, but the audience was captivated.
“It was that Rudy moment,” said his wife, Jayme. “It was amazing. It was one of the most inspirational moments I have ever witnessed.”
A victim of war
Bozik lost his limbs in October 2004 while he was stationed in Iraq. He was working security with the Army military police when his Humvee rolled over a bomb. The injuries to the driver and gunner weren’t life-threatening, but Bozik’s were. He spent a year and a half recovering at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
At the time of the injury, Bozik was in a long-distance relationship with Jayme. When Bozik deployed for Iraq, she wasn’t concerned.
“I really didn’t think he would die,” Jayme said. “We talked about getting injured, and you can lose as many limbs and it doesn’t matter. I am concerned if you come back with a brain injury. … We left it at, ‘Don’t worry, I will be there for you.’”
Jayme was at the drugstore when she got the call about the explosion. She had to wait five days before she was able to see her boyfriend, who was in a coma.
Days after Bozik awakened, he told Jayme: “I can’t carry you across the beach. I don’t know what your dreams and desires are, but if you’re planning to leave me, this is who I am now. I don’t have legs anymore. There is so much I can’t do. And if you think you can’t accept this, I need you to leave now. It will be too hard for me if you decide to leave one to two years from now.
“Can you live with this?”
“I don’t need time,” Jayme said. “I know my answer.”
Replied Bozik: “Then I need to make a phone call to your dad.”
The couple married on the third-floor chapel at Walter Reed. They have two children: Violet, 6, and Asher, 2.
“He still had his mind and heart,” Jayme said. “I had already fallen in love with Joey for who he was; the physical didn’t matter. I still think he is the most handsome man in this world.”
Bozik uses a motorized wheelchair to move around. He can drive, but wherever he goes, he asks himself: “Are there ramps? Are the doorways wide enough? Are there enough handicap spaces?”
“People come up to me and say, ‘Sorry,’ but that’s not the reality of life,” Bozik said. “I don’t think, ‘It would be nice to have legs and go to the grocery store.’ I don’t see obstacles. I see a different way to get the task done.”
What Bozik didn’t see was becoming an athlete again.
He had played golf, but it was difficult with prosthetic limbs. There didn’t seem to be a sport to light a fire under him. He was gaining weight.
“He was kind of watching his body die,” Jayme said. “It’s always harder to get back up.”
Bozik had been a wrestler and martial artist in his teens. When he took his daughter to train at Tier 1 Training Facility in McKinney, coach Alan Shebaro offered him a chance to return to the athletic world.
Shebaro, a former special forces weapons sergeant, was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., at the same time as Bozik, although they had never met. The two veterans instantly made a connection.
“Alan asked me if I would be interested in self-defense and BJJ,” Bozik said. “It was just to be able to protect my family.”
Progress through sport
Bozik, who doesn’t use prosthetics, took private lessons with Shebaro. At first, Shebaro was puzzled what to do. He came up with eight sheets of potential moves for Bozik to learn. He had to throw out six of them. Some moves didn’t work because one of Bozik’s legs is longer than the other.
“I’ve never trained anyone in the same situation,” Shebaro said. “I told him, ‘If you’re willing to have patience with me, I’ll have patience with you.’ ”
The patience paid off. Bozik moved to regular classes in September. He spars with every student. He’s lost about 15 pounds.
“There was a lot of trepidation at first,” Bozik said. “Once I got to roll around, it was all gone. It’s very cathartic. I spend so much time in the chair. It gives me time to get out.”
Said Jayme: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as happy.”
Shebaro said Bozik is relentless in his training. When Shebaro arrives, Bozik is already in the parking lot 15 minutes early.
People “take a look at him training and his work ethic,” Shebaro said. “He’s tapping out other white belts and giving blue belts a hard time because of his unique style.”
Bozik hopes his children and others heed one lesson.
“Don’t put yourself out of it before you get into it,” he said. “Never give up. There’s always a way if you’re willing to try.”