When a terror attack brought down the World Trade Center towers in New York City, Gavin Sibayan felt like it was time to stand up for his country.
When his war injuries left him partially paralyzed, he knew it was time to stand up for his children.
It’s been a long journey back, and while he is not fully recovered, Sibayan was recently named the U.S. Disabled Soccer Athlete of the Year. A 1999 graduate of Westminster High School, he has made his community and his country proud.
“Athletic completion was always important to me,” Sibayan said recently from his home in Colorado Springs. “After my injuries, I was just trying to get back in the game.”
Sibayan grew up in Westminster, attending Flynn Elementary, Shaw Heights Middle School and then Westminster High School. As a senior, he captained the boys’ soccer team after having transitioned from goal keeper to sweeper. He was the model of good health and an Army career was not part of his plans.
Then came 9/11.
“My country is at war,” he recalled thinking, “It’s time for me to do something and try and keep people safe.”
He joined the Army and in 2008, within a matter of one month, he was involved in the IED explosions. The most serious happened outside of Tajid, Iraq. In an instant, his life changed forever. The explosion dislocated his hip, buried shrapnel in his body and, worst of all, left him with a diagnosis of TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury.
Forced out of active duty by his injuries, Sibayan began looking for ways to literally get back on his feet.
Because athletics was always an important part of his life, he decided to compete in the Warrior Games which allows injured veterans to represent their branch of service in competitive sports. His accomplishments were great, winning four gold medals in swimming.
He was such a strong athlete, the U.S. Paralympic National Soccer Team asked him to try out for their team.
The elite program recruits athletes from across the country to compete in international competition. To be eligible, athletes have to have suffered from one of three neurological conditions: a stroke, Cerebral Palsy or a traumatic brain injury.
Sibayan jumped at the chance and after tryouts in California he made the team. As he was preparing to represent his country in the World Cup, his war injuries came back to shatter his new reality. He suffered two strokes that doctors say were tied to his TMI. The second stroke left him paralyzed on his right side.
His challenge now was not to compete at a high athletic level, but to live a productive life for his two children. “There was a point where I was really down,” he admits. “But I said to myself, ‘I have two kids to take care of.”
With the support of his wife Stephanie, Gavin entered a rehabilitation program that has shown amazing results. The only lingering signs of his stroke are that he can’t open his right hand, and he can’t put his right heel down.
He can run.
He can play soccer.
He can score goals.
He played so well in 2014 that he was named Athlete of the Year. “I received an email saying I had been nominated and it was kind of a shocker,” Sibayan said. “I’m honored. I have a lot of pride for the U.S. and it’s a big honor to just play on the team.”
Sibayan plans to compete with the team again next year and odds are you will find him on the soccer field with his two boys, seven-year-old Gavin Junior and four-year-old Telen.
Ask him if he sees himself as an inspiration to other injured vets and he’s very modest.
“There are guys that have been through a lot worse,” he said. “My message is that it’s important for all injured vets to try and get back what they lost.”