Wheelchair Rugby Talent of One-Time Orphan Developed in San Diego


To understand what it's like to play wheelchair rugby, Kory Puderbaugh explains the jarring reality of reinforced, 50-pound chairs colliding in ways that would make NFL safeties cringe.

Start with the unnerving soundtrack.

"It sounds like a gunshot a lot of times," he said. "You get concussions. People break bones. Sometimes you end up in someone else's lap or they end up in yours."

Puderbaugh, 25, rushes into the metallic, ringing fray again when the U.S. opens pool play against New Zealand on Aug. 24 (San Diego time) at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. The 2016 silver medalist who honed his skills with the acclaimed San Diego Sharp Wheelchair Rugby team relishes each cut, bruise and howling muscle. All of it, simply the price of living the life he wants.

Long ago, Puderbaugh decided to stiff arm excuses, erase doubts and obliterate limits.

Puderbaugh ticks off his physical realities with the emotion of someone scrolling through a grocery list. He has no legs, in essence, below the kneecaps. His right arm extends to the wrist, with two fingers. His left arm ends at the elbow.

He was born Zbigniew Sliwa in Wroclaw, Poland. He never knew his father. He harbors faint suspicions that the kind woman who visited him periodically at the orphanage where he lived might be his mother.

He came to the U.S. a week before the 9-11 attacks. He spent time with three or four different families, has been adopted twice and home schooled. He lost count of the surgeries he has endured at 30.

One foster figure he avoids talking about in any real detail abused him physically and emotionally, calling him worthless, telling him he would end up in jail, predicting his future was destined to be filled with crushing failure.

There were suicide attempts.

"There were some dark years in my life," he said.

Puderbaugh chose not to wither or wallow in self-pity.

When it was hinted that he could not swim, he dove into the pool with the energy of an otter. When it was suggested that he could not become a pilot, he drove to a flight school in Indiana, sleeping his Subaru Outback along the way. When a teacher toppled him in chess, he obsessed with daily lessons and games for a year until he became a state champion. When he needed money, Warren Buffett's story inspired him to study stock markets until his accounts bulged.

Place a "can't" in his way and Puderbaugh shreds the reasoning into confetti.

"A lot of people give me the 'poor you' treatment," he said. "That infuriates me."

Then there's "The Notebook." The tough guy "loves chick flicks and cries watching inspirational animal videos," his girlfriend Cassie Sasaki revealed. Puderbaugh tackles that, as he does everything else, head on.

"I guess my kryptonite would be love," he said. "I have a soft spot. Movies show what we all want … someone to love us."

Who is Kory Puderbaugh?

Focus on what you hear, not what you see.

Proving 'I could do more'

Puderbaugh's earliest memories in Poland took root in a large house "almost like a mansion." Orphaned children stayed in two rooms, making bathroom visits as a group. They ate tomato soup and oatmeal every day.

Making mischief doubled as making a statement.

"I'd try to steal other people's toys," he said. "I wanted to prove I could do more than they thought I could, because I didn't really have legs."

As the images gray in his mind, questions sprout. Who are his parents? Why did they give him up?

"I'm so grateful for the families I have in the states, but my girlfriend and them push me to learn more about my (Polish) family," said Puderbaugh, 25. "I'm open open to it, especially after Tokyo. It would be therapeutic. At the same time, I'm not in a hurry."

His life would be built eight time zones away.

Puderbaugh bounced from place to place until he settled in Eagle, Idaho, just outside of Boise. That's where he connected with two families that opened their hearts and homes.

"Kory was bopping along in the hallways, just very engaging," said John Cochrane, a middle-school teacher who, along with his wife Trudi, allowed Puderbaugh to move in with them. "It was his first public school experience.

"Kory said to me, 'I better start behaving myself because none of these pretty girls are going to have anything to do with me if I'm a troublemaker.' "

When Puderbaugh was a junior in high school, he became friends with the son of Kim and Brian Underwood. He started to hang around the house. The relationship grew deeper by the day.

The Underwoods quickly began to understand his unique and inspiring glow.

"He is a true survivor and a true optimist," Kim said. "He never focuses on any negative. He just doesn't. I don't know how he's done that. A good word to describe Kory is grateful. He's grateful for everything good in his life.

"There's a lot of dark, but he chooses to focus on the light."

Sasaki, Puderbaugh's girlfriend, marvels at his wealth of positive thinking. He's an eyes-forward kind of person, who mines lessons from missteps. He finds possibility amid pain.

To hear her talk, motivational speaker Tony Robbins might want to peek over his shoulder.

"He's always had this deep vision of what he wants his life to be and what he wants his life to look like and that's No. 1 on his list, building that life," Sasaki said. "He truly believes he was put on this earth to do something great and change the world. Things in the past, he sees them as a little insignificant to where he's going.

"I used to be a total grouch, hanging onto stuff. But watching the way he goes through life and encourages people and brushes off things I'm not sure I could handle, changes the way I see the world."

When someone brings up his birth family, he says "I already have a family." If the topic drifts to his suicide attempts from those dark days, he jumps into the conversation without reservation.

"To me and pretty much anyone I know, you keep those subjects to yourself or those closest in his life," Sasaki said. "But he'd tell a complete stranger that. He doesn't think our past defines us and (believes) our stories can help other people."

That attitude-is-a-choice stuff you hear? Puderbaugh doesn't just believe it, he lives it.

"I think a lot of people put disabled people in a box on how they should live," he said. "I'm creating my own box."

Road to White House

Puderbaugh began to play wheelchair rugby in Boise. He became so good that recruiters ranging from Oregon to Arizona reached out. The team at Sharp flew him out to see San Diego in 2015.

The puzzle pieces proved a snug fit.

"The guys are very welcoming and I was a big fan of the team," he said. "When I got to San Diego, that was pretty much a done deal. It just felt right."

As Puderbaugh focused on his game, he locked down his first job at the Best Buy off Carmel Mountain Road. He started as a cashier, before moving on to sales. San Diego became the place where his Paralympic picture came into focus.

Though missing out on gold against Australia in double overtime stings, Puderbaugh — of course — locks onto the bigger takeaway.

"Representing your country is an experience you can't put into words, other than it's amazing and humbling," he said. "It's basically like being on Cloud 9 for three weeks."

After Rio, the U.S. team visited 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Puderbaugh couldn't resist the opportunity to brighten the day of a sitting president.

"I asked President Obama, 'When are you going to work on your six-pack again?" he said. "He laughed and said, 'I'm working on my four-pack.' "

From an orphanage to the White House.

"Life is 10 percent the cards you're dealt," Puderbaugh said, "and 90 percent how you play them."