When former Navy rescue swimmer Mike Roggio dives into the pool during his swimming event at the Invictus Games in Orlando this week, he’ll be defying the odds.
In 2009, doctors told Roggio he’d probably never walk again after he broke his neck in an accident at a naval station.
Now, just seven years later, the intrepid veteran isn’t just walking, he’s swimming, diving and jumping his way towards gold as he takes part in Prince Harry’s Paralympic-style event.
“I feel like I’ve hit a spot in my recovery where I’m almost back at 100 percent, and I can become a really strong competitor,” he tells PEOPLE.
Roggio, who will compete in the freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke events for Team USA, says swimming was crucial to his recovery process.
“I was bed-bound for about 10 months,” he says. “Recovering in the pool was instrumental. In the pool, you don’t have the same effects with gravity. It makes doing the physical activity much easier.”
Staying active in the water also kept Roggio’s spirits lifted.
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“One of the biggest obstacles in my recovery was dealing with depression. I went from being an athlete and a very able-bodied person to being bed-ridden and in diapers for several months,” he shares. “I couldn’t even push off the wall [of the pool] at first, but a few months down the road I was actually racing other people in the pool.”
Riggio says he can’t wait to challenge himself at this year’s Invictus Games.
“I think that this is really an opportunity for a lot of people to take that final step or milestone in their recovery,” he says of the Games. “A lot of people with similar backgrounds get together and they get to be part of a community again – share ideas, share what they’ve done in their recovery, what worked and what didn’t work.”
He’s also looking forward to meeting Prince Harry, who founded the Games in 2014.
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“I think that what he’s created is incredible – especially coming from somebody who knows what it’s like to deploy,” he says. “There are other programs around, but nothing like this where it’s country versus country.”
Roggio, who lives in Orlando where he works as a building inspector and also flips houses, says he’s proud of his military career – even though it was tragically cut short.
“My main job was working in human trafficking and counter narcotics,” he says. “My big push to join the military was that my dad was actually a drug trafficker and I wanted to do the opposite of what he did – almost right his wrongs in a sense.
During his four-year career, Roggio helped seize over 11-metric tons of cocaine, completed 57 rescues and stopped countless people from being trafficked, including small children.
“I am the master of my fate,” Roggio says, quoting the William Ernest Henley poem Prince Harry selected to represent the Games. The way I interpret that is I’m not taking this lying down. I’m going to take things a day at a time, and despite the prognosis, like being told I’d probably never walk again, I wasn’t going to accept that and I worked at it and worked at it.”