St. Louisan Pauls heading to Beijing seeking fourth Paralympic gold medal in sled hockey

[]Going into the third period of the sled hockey gold-medal game at the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, the United States was losing 1-0 to Canada and being outplayed. That was an unfamiliar situation for the Americans, who had won their four games up to that point by a combined score of 38-1.

[]“We thought we were down and out,” said U.S. goalie Steve Cash.

[]U.S. captain Josh Pauls, of Crestwood, wasn’t going to settle for that.

[]“Instead of letting everyone hang their heads,” recalled Cash, who retired from international competition last year after a long career that included three Paralympic gold medals, “Josh was there to lift everyone’s spirits. Whenever Josh speaks, everyone hears it. He was able to really give everyone the talk we needed.”

[]The Americans tied the game with 37.8 seconds to play and then won in overtime.

[]“It’s hard to say we would have the gold medal if not for him,” Cash said.

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[]The Beijing Paralympics begin on Friday, and once again, Pauls is on hand, once again the U.S. captain. The 29-year-old, who was born without tibia bones and had both legs amputated at 10 months, grew up in New Jersey but has lived in St. Louis since going to college at Lindenwood. This is his fourth U.S. Paralympic team and he is going for his fourth gold medal.

[]Pauls was introduced to the sport as a child in New Jersey, and at first wanted nothing to do with it. Later, though, when a team started closer to where he lived, he tried it again and found now he liked it. “Something changed, and I have not been able to figure it out in 20 years,” he said. “I ended up loving it and I still do to this day.

[]“It’s helped me grow into the person I am today. I’ve learned how to overcome adversity, I’ve learned how to battle back from being cut and dealing with criticism. The only person I can be better than is the person I was yesterday. I really think it’s something that taught me a lot of valuable life lessons.”

[]Pauls came to Lindenwood when it looked like they might start a sled hockey team. They didn’t, but he began playing with the Disabled Athlete Sports Association Blues (where Cash was a teammate) and in 2008, at 15, he made his national team debut and at 17, went to his first Olympics, in Vancouver. Meanwhile, he met his wife here and has put down roots after graduating from Lindenwood in 2016.

[]On the ice, he started as a goalie, then became a defenseman but when he first played for the national team, and went to his first two Olympics, it was as a forward. He switched back to defense in 2015. “I learned to play forward by playing the NHL video games to be honest,” he said, “because they had the little blue arrow that told me where to go and I realized that’s why my defensemen are always yelling at me to get on the wall. I was able to make the transition back and defense is something I really enjoy. I just have a better feel for the game. I can read plays, I can jump into the offense when I see the opportunity but also know I can be responsible defensively. For me, I tend to be an offensive driven player but my time as a third-line forward (in 2010) has really taught me I can contribute if I’m not scoring and that’s something I really take pride on.”

[]“He’s quick and agile,” said Cash. “He’s hard to knock off the puck. He’s a very hard-nosed hockey player who does not let anything get in the way when out there. There’s a reason he’s the best defenseman in the world.”

[]And, not surprisingly considering Pauls gives speeches for a living, he’s also a very good motivator.

[]“He pushed me in the gym all the time when we worked out together,” said Cash. “It was hardly ever the other way around. He made sure I got extra reps in. He knew that was going to make me stronger than before. He’s not only a great leader. He’s a better person. I think he’s looking to make everyone around him better.”

[]At 29, Pauls thinks his fourth Paralympics may not be his last. He’s on the ice three to four times a week, either with his adaptive team or working with a trainer, wherever he can find available ice. “I think I’ve still got a good amount of time,” he said.

[]Every four years is the big time for sled hockey, a time for the sport to get noticed, games to be won and messages to be delivered.

[]“It’s huge,” he said. “If you can see it, you can be it. If kids aren’t able to see Paralympians in the Games, aren’t able to see people with disabilities in sports and becoming the best version of themselves, how are they going to know they can do that themselves? There’s something to be said of the independence it shows, and also it shows what people are capable of, not to look at people with disabilities as weaker or lesser. We wanted to be treated as equals. Everybody in this world has something unique to bring to the table. It’s what really drives changes, really drives innovation.”

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