The Sochi olympics are less than 3 months away, and athletes everywhere are preparing for the competition of their lives. But for one Grand Island sled hockey player, his journey to the Paralympics will just be one small part of his overall experience.
Alexi Salamone of Grand Island has known since he was a little boy that he wanted to wear the red, white and blue. The Paralympic veteran will proudly be donning those colors again this year as he joins Team USA in Sochi.
Last month, Salamone moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and started playing with the Colorado Avalanche sled hockey team, all in preparation for his third trip to the Paralympics.
The pressure is on for another strong performance. He brought home the bronze medal from Torino in 2006 and he led his team to the gold in 2010 in Vancouver by scoring the game winner.
The medal he wears around his neck is vindication to all the naysayers who stood in his way growing up.
"I don't look at it as bragging rights, I look at as evidence. Like look, you thought that I couldn't do it, but this is my evidence that I did do it," said Salamone.
As Salamone prepares to head to Russia to defend his gold, he may face his biggest challenge yet, and it won't come on the ice. You see, for the first time ever, Salamone will be going home.
"It's going to be....it's going to be rough. Only because of my past," he said. "I haven't really grasped it yet because I'm trying to keep my composure."
Salamone was born just 14 months after the nuclear reactor meltdown in Chernobyl. The radiation caused birth defects that made his legs twisted and malformed. His parents, also sick, placed their baby for adoption.
"They volunteered me to the orphanage. I don't know the answers why and I'm not going to speculate why because that can just turn into bad feeling," said Salamone.
At the age of 4, his legs were amputated at a children's hospital in Moscow and he lived in the orphanage until age 6 when finally he was rescued by a couple from Grand Island.
"I knew that if we went and brought him home from Russia that there was a purpose for his life," said Sue Salamone, Alexi's mother.
Sue and Joe Salamone remember little Al being so full of life and love from the moment they met him
"The first words he spoke to me were, 'I love you, ok,'" Sue recalled.
"I wanted to be loved. I wanted to have someone. So that was the only way I could express it," said Alexi. "I couldn't really talk or say anything else but I knew how to say I love you."
The Salamones didn't just provide their son with unconditional love, but also a stable home, state of the art prosthetics, and encouragement to succeed.
"You know for a child you want the best, you know what I mean? So that was it. You try to get him anything and everything that he needed," said Joe Salamone.
Not just physical needs, but emotional needs, too. Joe recalls one day when Al was just a little boy, and he asked his father if his legs would ever grow back.
It was hard to tell him, 'this is the way it is, Al. Your legs are never going to grow back. Just make the best of it,'" recalled Joe.
Salamone said that conversation changed his whole view on life.
"Alright, that's not going to happen, so I'm just going to continue to do what I'm doing, be strong at it, but also be better at it."
So he learned to embrace his differences and face his fears head on. Alexi loved taking on new challenges like climbing ropes, wrestling and eventually sled hockey.
"It's challenging through society to be accepted and to be held at the same level as others, but getting on the ice we're all alike. We're all playing the sport we all like and truly love and every one of us- no matter what- is the same," said Alexi.
Salamone rose through the ranks in Buffalo's sled hockey league, and he was chosen for the national team at the young age of 16. The team aspect of the sport is what Al said he deeply appreciated.
"I gained the appreciation because of where I've come from…because I was secluded and alone."
It seems Salamone has come full circle. His success in hockey and life in America is bringing him back to Russia to face his past. When the Paralympics are over he plans to travel back to his orphanage and seek out his birth family.
"I'm just purely excited to have the opportunity to actually be able to look for somebody," he said. "
. I have no idea what I'm going to find."
While Salamone may have some reservations, his adoptive parents couldn't be more supportive of his impending journey.
"I think it's going to be special because Al's been here for 20 years, so this is going to be a homecoming of sorts," said Sue. "And I know he considers the United States his home, but it's going to be a good and healthy experience for him."
As Salamone prepares to go back to Russia, he's envisioning coming home having achieved one goal on and one goal off the ice.
"[I hope to come home with] two gold medals…because not only did I win with my team but I also won in life because…I've actually closed a gap of that circle and found what I needed to find."