On Monday, more than 25,000 people will line up on East Main Street in the Boston suburb of Hopkinton to partake in the 120th running of the iconic Boston Marathon. Among that group of runners will be retired United States Marine Staff Sergeant Jose Luis Sanchez. While each runner will have undergone their own journey to get to the starting line, but few will have stories as tumultuous and unlikely as Sanchez’s.
In 2011, while on a ground patrol during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan, Sanchez stepped on an improvised explosive device (IED). The explosion was so intense that it tore the portion of Sanchez’s left leg below his knee off his body.
“It was like being blindsided by a linebacker,” Sanchez told GrindTV. “It caught me off guard. So I was looking for who was attacking us. Once I realized we weren’t being shot at I looked down and saw my leg covered in blood. These two British officers I was on patrol with came to pick me up because they saw I was hurt. One grabbed me from my shoulders and the other from down near my legs, and my left leg just completely detached from my body.”
For Sanchez, the injury threw him into a well of despair. Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Sanchez was an athletic youth. He played football, basketball and track in high school before enrolling in the Marines.
Sanchez had always prided himself on his fitness, regaling in his ability to squat more than 300 pounds and push his fellow Marines to their limits in impromptu fitness competitions. Now, missing the lower half of his left leg and 90 percent of his right calf from the explosion, he couldn’t even walk.
“I lost all of my drive,” Sanchez told GrindTV. “The injury humbled me. I lost all my muscle mass. I lost a ton of weight. I couldn’t walk or move or stand up. I needed assistance just to get out of my wheelchair, and even then I couldn’t walk more than a foot without collapsing.”
Depressed about his condition, Sanchez closed himself off to the world. He didn’t want people to see him weakened. He didn’t want anyone to see his scars.
“I became a complete introvert,” Sanchez said. “I just wanted to workout to become the person I used to be.”
For four long years Sanchez focused solely on getting himself back into peak physical shape, rarely interacting with others. When he exercised, he covered up his wounds.
“I didn’t want to show my wounds because I didn’t want anyone to look down on me,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t want to hear that negativity; I felt ugly. Nobody wants to see those wounds, hell I don’t even want to see them.”
But after four years, Sanchez realized he needed the support of others, so he started to open himself up. It began with posting Instagram videos of his workouts. While still hesitant to show his wounds, the response online was staggering (he currently has over 10,000 followers) and overwhelmingly positive.
Soon, through the encouragement of his followers and his own dedication to working out, Sanchez was ready to step back out into the public. He entered himself into Tough Mudder and Spartan obstacle races starting in May 2015. By October, he was confident enough to take on the Marine Corps Marathon.
“That thing broke me,” Sanchez said. “I got to mile 20 and was like, ‘Man, f*** this.’ I had fractures in my leg, but I pushed through and finished.”
Now, on the three-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings, Sanchez is headed to Boston with Team Semper Fi, an extension of the Semper Fi Fund, which works to inspire wounded Marines to overcome their traumas to achieve athletic success. He says his goal is to not just to finish the marathon, but to hopefully inspire others to realize that no hurdle is too great to overcome.
“I want to lead by example,” said Sanchez. “I’m not going to go up to other amputees and be like, ‘You can do it!’ Instead, I hope that some people see what I’ve done and it invokes that fire within them to get over whatever is holding them back.”
While Sanchez hopes his leadership will inspire others, he remembers how important friendship – in both the real and digital world – also was to his own success.
“I kept fighting, and I got so far because I realized every day is a fight and you need to keep pushing,” said Sanchez. “But in the end, you can’t do it alone. You can only go so far alone before you need the love and support of others. Once you open yourself up to that, you will go so much further.”
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