Section offers other side of athletics, big games

UCLA Daily Bruin, September 25, 2000
Sean Gjos stands as an example of athletes we can learn a lot from despite not being the best or a famous name.

I’ve written at least 100 articles for the Daily Bruin, featured people currently in Sydney and covered athletes who’ve won national championships.

And one thing I’ve learned is that it’s not always the biggest, best or brand-name athletes who have the stories to tell.

Sometimes you can learn a lot from the ones who love the sport so much they’d pay for the honor of playing it.

A year ago I wrote a story about Sean Gjos, a UCLA club hockey player who had slammed into the boards during a game and crushed a part of his spine. He was rendered paraplegic.

Before the interview we talked on the phone first and agreed to meet at The Anderson School, where Gjos was taking classes. I described myself so that he’d know what to look for.

“I’m 5-foot-6 and I’ll be carrying a small notebook,” I told him.

“Okay,” he said. “I’m 6-feet tall and I’ll be in a wheelchair.”

On March 3, 1999, while playing in the club national championship tournament, Gjos (pronounced “Joss”), playing the game he adored, took a routine body check that changed his life forever.

On the ice and in pain, he was taken to the hospital where he found out that he had less than a 5 percent chance of ever walking again. But he didn’t let this discourage him.

As I learned over the phone, he could make fun of his condition. His friend Jimmy Young remembered one time he asked Sean, “Hey, what’s up?”

“Nothing,” Gjos replied. “I woke up this morning and still couldn’t walk.”

He didn’t just joke about it. He found strength and rebounded. He turned what could have been misery into an opportunity.

Gjos helped set up the Spinal Cord Opportunities for Rehabilitation Endowment, also known as SCORE, an organization that both raises money to fund research about paraplegia and seeks people living with paraplegia to help them financially.

When the accident first happened his friends wanted to set up SCORE just to help him, but Gjos refused until the scope of the organization was widened. Now SCORE helps anyone who has paraplegia and got it while playing athletics. Only a year old, it currently finances four people.

“He has been the leader and the visionary in turning SCORE into a budding, important nonprofit that supports the cure and helps care,” said Ralph Vogel, Gjos’ friend and a co-founder of SCORE.

Sure, insurance pays the medical bills, but there are a lot of things insurance doesn’t pay for. Things you don’t ever imagine being a problem until you can’t walk.

“When someone succumbs to a spinal cord injury there are a lot of expenses,” Gjos said. “Some of those are revamping a home to widen doorways and alter bathrooms. There’s outfitting vehicles and even just insurance co-payments.

“That could easily amount to $10,000. Our philosophy is, when you suffer an injury, you should be focused on trying to get better. You shouldn’t be worrying about financial issues, so we try and lessen that burden.”

SCORE, which has had a number of fund-raisers, has also given $75,000 to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and the Miami Project to help them in their search for a cure for spinal cord injuries.

For Gjos personally, the diagnosis hasn’t changed much in the past year.

But he hasn’t given up.

“Unfortunately, his condition has stagnated,” Vogel said. “But he continues to do rehabilitation. He is on his handbike a lot. He’s keeping himself in great shape and physical condition in order for him to have the best chances when a cure does come around.”

A year ago Gjos said that the mornings were the worst part – the waking up and having to deal with reality all over again.

“The mornings have gotten better. You just adjust,” he said. A few seconds passed and he amended, “Yeah, from time to time, definitely, it still hurts. I think that’s just natural, given how active I was before and the limitations I have to deal with.”

But when he does feel bad, he laughs about it. On the SCORE Web site, Gjos jokes that in his free time he’s on the Santa Monica boardwalk “terrorizing joggers with his handcycle.”

“I’m getting on with my life,” he said recently.

Gjos has graduated from UCLA’s Anderson School and is the Director of Business Development for a startup fiber optics company, exactly what he said he wanted to do before he graduated a year ago.

“In a startup you do a little bit of everything. You help out wherever you can,” he said.

Gjos is moving on, and he’s not blaming anything, least of all hockey, for his condition.

“My love for the sport has not faded,” Gjos said. “I still follow it. The Stanley Cup games were pretty good. I was just disappointed that Colorado didn’t make it. I’m a big fan of Ray Bourque.”

As he said, most days you can find him hanging out on Santa Monica terrorizing joggers, so if you happen to be jogging there, watch out for him.

He’s 6-feet tall and he’ll be the one on the handbike.