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How a devastating injury led this Army vet to completely reinvent her life

How a devastating injury led this Army vet to completely reinvent her life

As a major in the Army, Sean Morelli defined him as a soldier. The athleticism—she joined the swimming team at age four before hitting the soccer field at six—helped her excel as an officer. And, as usual, she aimed for high goals: she wanted to be a general.

But in 2007, fate robs the person she thought he was when an injury in Afghanistan left her neck and nerves damaged, as well as blinding her left eye. Due to her injuries, the Army medically retired her in 2012.

“It was the only thing I ever wanted to do,” she says. “I didn’t have a Plan B, and then I’d be told I’d be medically retired?” She struggled to find value in her life.

The mental and physical strength she had always maintained, as well as the identity she had established through her military service, began to fade as she dealt with the pain from her nerve injuries, constant migraines, and weight gain from the medications she was taking. . I started drinking a lot. She tried to kill herself.

“It was a really hard time for me, trying to figure out what I would have done, what I would have been without the military,” she says.

While she was struggling, her husband, Carl Dick, remained in the army. He would deploy three more times after she was hit, adding pressure to his safety, but also reminding her of the company she was leading, the three deployments she had in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the goals she envisioned.

In the end, Morelli decided that she needed to find a new purpose in her life.

“I just decided I’d go ahead,” she said. “Maybe after attempting suicide when I had just decided I was going to make that change – I needed to do better in life and survive. I needed to make the hard decision that I was going to set new goals and excel at something else.”

But it took some time to find a new focus. “Cycling got me out of it,” she says. “This kind of breathed new life into me.” She started cycling for psycho and physical therapy because she couldn’t do the things she was doing for exercise before her injuries.

says Morelli, who now lives in Leavenworth, Kansas. “It was more of being out on the road to help me deal with PTSD — it helped me deal with not being able to run anymore and do the things I used to do.”

Sean Morelli's photo

Sean Morelli in Team USA uniform.

American Paralympic Games Cycling

Learning to ride with limited vision meant she had to focus completely just to keep herself safe, but that focus meant she didn’t think about anything else.

“I just love riding my bike,” she says. “There’s not a lot of train every day, but I like to ride my bike.” In fact, at first, she rode so much that it became unhealthy, she says. It took several years of therapy and training to find the right amount of intensity and gain balance, to feel like she knows who she is again, and to feel powerful.

She started doing group rides with her local bike shop, Santa Fe Trails, and got to know the owner, who asked if she wanted to race with his team. Her teammates worked with her, and she entered a small local race. After I did well at Warrior Games, an adaptive sports competition conducted by the Department of Defense, I began to consider if it was good enough to pursue it professionally.

“Should I get a trainer? Should I take it seriously? Should I keep doing it for fun with the bike shop? It was kind of a back-and-forth mind game,” she says.

She met some cycling instructors, who invited her to a development camp — where she knew it was time to go: she hired a full-time instructor in 2009.

As it turns out, Morelli is very good at bike racing.

She earned a spot on Team USA as a Paralympian, won three gold and one silver in 2016 and 2020, and just finished fourth in October at the 2022 UCI MotoGP World Championships in France.

She usually cuts 18 to 20 hours a week. You spend time in the gym working on strength, movement, and stretching, making it up to 50 hours a week during training season.

“I have to really think about how many calories I’m consuming,” she says. Sometimes that means 4,000 healthy calories, mostly from protein. She takes up to three smoothies a day — and if, at the end of the day, she realizes she doesn’t have enough protein, she’ll mix her protein powder with water to make sure she’s nourishing her muscles.

Sean Morelli Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games

Morelli at the starting line for the track at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Behind her, the starting gate holds her bike in place; He releases the wheel as soon as the race starts to ensure that no one starts too early.

Casey Gibson / US Paralympic Games

During the vacation period, which only lasts two weeks, do whatever you want – or “nothing at all”. After a bit of vacation, gym sessions begin, usually three times a week and some rounds. Then you’ll start building again gradually for the racing season.

In addition to the usual injuries athletes face — she had hip surgery after racing at the Paralympics in Rio and knee surgery after Tokyo — Morelli has some additions. “I can have some muscle cramps, especially with high-intensity races,” she says. “I always have problems if I turn my head too fast, so I have to be careful.”

But she understands her limitations and is never afraid.

Sometimes other riders try to “protect” her by riding on her left side because they know she can’t see. But she’s fine. “I know how to ride my bike,” she says. “I listen really well.”

With each race, you think about where you’ve been and who you want to be, and how all of those things came together to create the current version of Shawn Morelli. Describing herself, she says “Veteran first, cyclist, wife, daughter.”

“A lot of people think I should put Paralympics first – gold first. But I’ll just say, I’m just Shawn. I just try to do my best every day. I try to be a little better today than I was yesterday, whether that’s doing something nice. Or say nice words to someone.”

And soon she’ll add “Cycling Instructor” to her list. She’s got her nutrition certification and she’s working on certification training – building another piece of her ever-changing identity.

Sean Morelli

Morelli took her silver in the women’s 3,000m individual pursuit, a track race at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

Casey Gibson / US Paralympic Games

“I want to go into mentoring and coaching and help others achieve their dreams,” she says. “Because I don’t need to prove anything. I’ve got every metallic color out there in every discipline I’ve ever raced…I want to focus on women and young female athletes, because I think they are often neglected.”

She says female athletes and Paralympians don’t get paid the same as healthy men. This flows in other ways: the interest paid in school, scholarship opportunities, sponsorship possibilities.

Morelli recently started taking young girls on cycling tours, teaching them how to turn (brake correctly before turning) and how to be a little faster.

But her lessons go beyond technique, to building their confidence as well. “Why can’t you You are Do it?” she asks. “Yes, there are hurdles, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means that it may take a little longer.”

Morelli understands this on a personal level. Some days, her feet don’t work properly or her legs don’t bend as well as they should. “I’m like a robot when I walk, and that’s how my legs release,” she says. “Sometimes I have really good days, and you may not know I have any disabilities. And then I have other days where it isn’t.”

She never knows until she wakes up on race day morning how the day will go.

So she is still working on her thinking.

“I have a therapist for that,” she says. I’m not afraid to admit it. I think everyone should have someone they can talk to and trust, that helps them deal with everything that’s going on in their lives, whether it’s sports, dealing with teammates – it helps me with social anxiety, it helps me with a disorder after the shock. ”

After her discharge from the military, she had difficulty going out to eat or to social situations. You didn’t want to be around a lot of people or deal with loud noises. She now relies on her therapist, family, friends, and coaches to handle the matter.

“I have friends who say, ‘You know, we’ve always loved you, but we love you more now’ than when they first met me because of how old I am. I’ve gone from being angry and very depressed, from being an alcoholic, and suicidal, to being happy To some extent,” she says. “I still struggle with some social anxiety -[I’m] Absolutely cool to have my whole day at home – but I’m willing to meet friends in some places. And I smile a lot more, I’m much happier now.”

For Morelli, this is the power of renewal, opening up to a version of yourself you never imagined. Grandeur can appear of all kinds.


strength after service

This story was created as part of a Tell Me project in partnership with the US Army. Project Tell Me is a series running throughwomen’s health And the men’s health To celebrate the contributions of US military veterans and highlight some of their voices.


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