Posted on May 7, 2016
Captain, USMC (Retired) Sarah Bettencourt has quite a resume.
She graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2005. She earned a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Stanford University—while serving with the 23rd Marine Regiment. She founded the San Diego Ducks Sled Hockey club, sponsored by the National Hockey League’s Anaheim Ducks.
But ask her about her proudest achievement, and the answer you’re likely to get is a little project she undertook with her high school sweetheart and husband, Matt: their nine-month-old son, Tyler.
“I tend to tear up every time I realize I’m a mom—yes, even when I’m changing those dirty diapers,” Sarah says with a smile. “For a while I didn’t think it was going to be possible for us to have a child because of my unpredictable and worsening disability, so I’m very thankful we were able to have Tyler.”
“Tyler is the silver lining of many challenging years,” she continues. “I was able to make it through some really difficult times in my life because of my amazing husband Matt, and now Tyler has not only given us the gift of being our wonderful child, but in the process he allowed some of my worst transient symptoms to go into remission.”
The symptoms Sarah refers to are related to a rare neurological disorder she developed in 2008 while training to fly helicopters.
“One month from my wings, my hands stopped working during a boat flight,” she recalls. “I refused to put my helicopter crew at risk and pulled myself out of the training until the doctors could figure out what was wrong.”
As this is written (in May 2016), doctors still haven’t figured out exactly what’s wrong. Medically retired in June 2012, Sarah explains that “my current working diagnosis is cerebral inflammatory disorder. Essentially, I have lesions of inflammation in my brain — the part of my body, which that part of my brain controls, stops working properly.”
“If my defenses are strong enough,” she continues, “then the lesion goes away and my symptoms are transient. If my defenses are not strong enough, then that lesion results in permanent brain damage and I lose that function permanently. Currently, my permanent symptoms are sensation loss and weakness in my hands and feet, loss of balance and constant vertigo, and coordination loss. Thankfully, my worst transient symptoms have been in remission since being pregnant and now breastfeeding Tyler.”
When Sarah was going through the medical retirement process, she asked her case manager how she could get involved with sports. “I had no idea about adaptive sports or adaptive equipment. My case manager told me about the Semper Fi Fund. They purchased me a recumbent bicycle that I’m able to use when my legs are operational and I have the coordination to cycle. This bike was my first step to regaining independence and activity.”
Sarah also got involved with Team Semper Fi—“Going skiing with Team Semper Fi in January 2013 was my first adaptive sports experience”—and soon discovered sled hockey, which she says is her greatest passion.
“I had only been playing sled hockey for about three months before I had to stop due to pregnancy. Being a goal-driven athlete, I needed something to keep me active during pregnancy and to continue after delivery to bounce back quickly. When I learned the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey team tryouts were six weeks after my due date, I obtained clearance from my doctors to specifically train off-ice for the tryouts.
“Tyler was a little bit late to show up,” she continues, “and after being cleared I was back on the ice a week after delivery. I guess all the hard work paid off, because I made the U.S. Women’s Sled Hockey Team five weeks after delivery. Some people say it’s amazing, yet for me having that goal and staying mentally and physically active made the entire process easier for me.”
As a new mom celebrating her first Mother’s Day in 2016, Sarah is happy to be including her son as part of her athletic lifestyle.
“Being active with Tyler is the best thing for me and him right now,” she says. “Not only do I get to train for and play my favorite sport, workout, relieve stress and be with friends, Tyler gets to grow up traveling all over the country watching his parents live an active lifestyle. The mornings are my favorite as Tyler and I get ready for the day and go to the gym to work out—Tyler learning to crawl, climb and walk, and me training hard to be a better player for my sled hockey teams.”
“In Tyler’s 9 months, he has joined Matt and me in playing hockey, skiing, tubing, cross-country skiing, camping, hiking, surfing, and swimming. I’m excited for what the future holds for us as a family, and I look forward to our many adventures.”