Tuesday, October 17, 2017

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Gabriel Gehr, a second-year liberal studies major at SDSU, hopes to participate in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (Credit: Gabriel Gehr) Gabriel Gehr, a second-year liberal studies major at SDSU, hopes to participate in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. (Credit: Gabriel Gehr)
 


One Stroke, One Lap, One Day at a Time

SDSU student Gabriel Gehr finds recovery and new educational goals at the bottom of the pool.
By Katie White
 

“Everyone here at the veteran’s center has a military background and an understanding of our community. They put people here who want to see you succeed.”

Gabriel Gehr exudes a confidence and positivity that’s apparent from the moment you meet him. Gehr is currently a second-year liberal studies major at San Diego State University, aspiring to become a middle school science teacher.

He is also a classified Paralympic swimmer who recently broke 10 Paralympic swimming records over the course of just three weeks. It would be an impressive achievement for anyone but even more so for Gehr, who started swimming only about two years ago while recovering from wounds he sustained in Afghanistan.

Gehr was hit by shrapnel from an anti-tank rocket in November 2013 in Helmand Province. He suffered major injuries to his left arm and leg and underwent countless medical treatments and extensive physical therapy. Gehr was awarded the Purple Heart in recognition of the sacrifices he made while serving his country.

“Swimming is a great form of stress relief for me, and I’m in less pain from my physical injuries when I’m in the water,” said Gehr. “Before I started swimming, I was kind of down because I had just been medically retired from the Marine Corps and was dealing with these new injuries, but the pool is the place where I can be like everyone else.”

But Gehr is lengths ahead of everyone else when it comes to swimming. Last summer, he competed in the Department of Defense Warrior Games, the armed forces’ sporting competition for wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans. Gehr took home three gold and one bronze medal in swimming, as well as a gold medal in cycling and a silver medal in wheelchair basketball.

His success in the pool does not come without hard work and dedication. Gehr trains with his coach, Michael Kleinert, five to six days a week for up to two hours at a time.

"He says swimming saved his life,” said Kleinert, who is the head swim coach at the USMC Wounded Warrior Battalion West Regiment located at Camp Pendleton. “There was a time when I used to think a pool was just a hole filled with water but after working with Gabe, I now know water can fill a hole deep inside someone's heart.”

Kleinert said he noticed changes within Gehr almost instantly. Not only physical changes - Gehr has lost about 30 pounds since he began swimming competitively - but mental changes as well.

“The records are great, but the progress he has made in his recovery is what I am most proud of,” said Kleinert. “Gabe started smiling, his true personality started to show and he was having fun. One stroke, one lap, one day at a time.”

So what’s next for Gehr? He is currently training for this year’s Invictus Games, the international version of the U.S.-based Warrior Games established by Prince Harry. He also hopes to participate in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.

As he began to recover and find success in the pool, Gehr also started to formulate new professional goals.

Fueled by a passion for science, Gehr decided to become a science teacher shortly after he started swimming. SDSU was an obvious choice thanks to its nationally ranked education program and convenient location close to where he trains at Camp Pendleton.

Gehr applied for special admission through the Wounded Warrior Program. Thanks to a long list of military accomplishments and a little bit of luck, he became one of only 25 military-affiliated students admitted to the university under the SDSU Presidential Military Special Admission program in 2015.

“The students who are selected for the SDSU Presidential Military Special Admission program are the cream of the crop of the military," said Holly Shaffner, military liaison officer at the Joan and Art Barron Veterans Center. “They received excellent evaluations while on active duty plus they have the drive, determination, maturity and capability to be a college student."

The SDSU Presidential Military Special Admission program is just one of the initiatives offered at the Barron Veterans Center. The center works to ensure all military-connected students, including active duty, veterans, reservists and military dependents have access to the help they need to succeed on their path to graduation.

The Barron Veterans Center is at the core of the university’s many support systems for SDSU military-affiliated students, which earned the university a spot among the top 25 schools for veterans. Thanks to gifts and pledges of more than $7.5 million, SDSU has been able to significantly expand space and programming for the more than 3,200 military-connected Aztecs.

“Everyone here at the veteran’s center has a military background and an understanding of our community,” said Gehr. “They put people here who want to see you succeed.”
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The San Diego Union-Tribune: SDSU student breaks 10 Paralympic swimming records