U.S. military veteran competes to win with Penn State Ability Athletics

February 06, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- U.S. military veteran Max Rohn's leg wound and subsequent amputation didn't quell his competitive nature. With Penn State Ability Athletics, he's training for national and world championships in track and field. 

The Penn State Ability Athletics program is nationally recognized for the competitive opportunities it offers disabled track and field athletes like Rohn, a College of Engineering sophomore. 

Penn State Ability Athletics program provides training, support to wounded veteran

U.S. military veteran Max Rohn was severely wounded while on deployment in Iraq, but he's dedicated to overcoming each new challenge and finding both athletic and academic success here at Penn State. The College of Engineering sophomore works with the University's Ability Athletics program to train for national and international competitions; after graduation, he aims to pursue a career in improving prosthetic technologies for other amputees.

Penn State

In May of 2009, Rohn — then a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy — was wounded while in the third vehicle of a convoy headed for the Camp Baharia Marine Corps Base just outside of Fallujah, Iraq. 

"On our drive back, my vehicle was hit by an RPG-3 grenade," he said. "My door came open and punched a hole right next to my right leg."

When he regained consciousness, his first priority was checking on the other passengers in the vehicle. Then he looked down to assess his own injury — which was severe. 

Over the next two years, Rohn underwent 14 surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage to his right leg. His 15th surgery removed the leg, just below the knee. 

Max Rohn prepares to throw the shot at a recent competition.

Max Rohn competed in three events at the 2014 Invictus Games—shot put, discus, and sitting volleyball—for which he brought home two gold medals and one silver. The games brought together hundreds of wounded, ill, and injured servicemen and women from across the globe.

IMAGE: Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee

"When you're hurt in the hospital, the first thing you always say is, 'When do I get to go back?' Then you start coming to grips with it," he said. "That's when you make some kind of claim to either getting back to where you were or doing something like a physical accomplishment. With a physical injury, you have to do some kind of physical activity to counterbalance it." 

So Rohn began competing in the Warrior Games, a Paralympic-style event for U.S. service members and veterans. 

Ability Athletics

It was the Warrior Games where Rohn first met Penn State Ability Athletics coach Teri Jordan. Jordan was serving as a track coach for Navy Safe Harbor, an organization that coordinates the non-medical care of wounded, ill and injured sailors. 

"When I first met Max, he was still at the hospital and had not yet made the decision to have the amputation," recalled Jordan. "I saw him evolve over the years from being in a lot of pain to the happier person he is now." 

Watching this kind of evolution in athletes is what inspires Jordan to do what she does. For more than 20 years, she worked as a women's track and field coach, then transitioned into working with disabled athletes through the Ability Athletics program. 

"There are not many programs in the country that have given opportunities for persons with disabilities to have competition and opportunities to compete. Penn State has taken a lead on that and has become recognized on a national as well as world level."

— coach Teri Jordan

Penn State Ability Athletics provides opportunities for disabled Penn State students and community members in wheelchair basketball, swimming, weightlifting and power lifting, and track and field events including throwing and wheelchair racing. 

The Ability Track and Field team, of which Rohn is a member, offers year-round training and opportunities for national and international competition. The Penn State program is one of only three in the country that offers track and field events for the disabled and one of only two that offers the throwing events that Rohn has made his specialty. 

"At every turn, I get support from the University. I don't think I could get a better opportunity anywhere else."
— Max Rohn, student athlete 

"There are not many programs in the country that have given opportunities for persons with disabilities to have competition and opportunities to compete," said Jordan. "Penn State has taken a lead on that and has become recognized on a national as well as world level." 

Jordan's efforts at Penn State over the last 15 years with Ability Athletics have given several disabled athletes a chance to grow to elite levels. She has coached two Paralympic athletes, six world champions and five Para-Pan American athletes. 

"I think that Ability Athletics gives our athletes the confidence that not only can they succeed on the athletic field but also in the classroom," Jordan said. "The dedication and commitment it takes to be successful as an athlete also carries over into the classroom." 

From sailor to student

As Rohn began to compete more seriously, he recognized that he would benefit from a more structured training program to help him improve. Jordan began to encourage him to apply to Penn State.

"Most of my family never went to college, so it was always kind of a dream of mine to get a degree," Rohn said. 

"I think that Ability Athletics gives our athletes the confidence that not only can they succeed on the athletic field but also in the classroom."

—Teri Jordan

Before retiring from the Navy in March 2013, he applied and was accepted to Penn State. Currently a sophomore in the College of Engineering, he hopes to pursue a career dedicated to advancing the technology of prosthetic limbs. 

"With this war, the advancements in prosthetics have increased so much." He recalls, "When I was at (Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), my prosthetist would call me when product representatives would come in, and I'd try out various limbs to see if I could break them. That's what I want to do; I think that would be useful for my community." 

"Competing is the easy part for me, but the classroom changes my focus. I like it because I know I can't compete forever. I need to be well rounded."
—Max Rohn

Though going back to college has offered Rohn a new set of challenges, he says he feels at home here at Penn State, thanks to Ability Athletics and other University resources that have helped him each step of the way. 

"At every turn, I get support from the University," he said. "I don't think I could get a better opportunity anywhere else." 

The drive to succeed

Over the past few years, Rohn has had success in national and international competitions, particularly in throwing events like shot put and discus. From the Invictus Games, held in London last summer, he brought home gold medals in shot put and discus and a silver medal in sitting volleyball. 

But Rohn had to work through a number of challenges to get to where he is today. When he first started competing in the Warrior Games after his amputation, he wanted to be a runner. 

He eventually found his niche elsewhere, however: in throwing. 

"It's simple but complex at the same time," said Rohn. "Unless you do it, you don't have an appreciation for how technical and difficult it is." 

Max Rohn prepares to release the disc during an indoor training session.

Max Rohn's training schedule includes weight training three days a week and throwing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Regular training with Coach Teri Jordan has vastly improved Rohn's competition results, he says.

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

Rohn has been invited to several national and world championship events and is currently training for nationals this summer. From there, he's aiming for the world championship games in Qatar this fall and next year's Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The combination of sport and school keeps Rohn focused and moving forward: "Both sides help each other. Competing is the easy part for me, but the classroom changes my focus. I like it because I know I can't compete forever. I need to be well rounded." 

Throughout his recovery and subsequent growth as a competitive track and field athlete, his dedication to succeed and openness to new opportunities have stayed constant.

"What goes wrong with a lot of people in similar situations to mine is, you had this great life picked out. Then your world gets rocked, and you think, 'Now what?'" he said. 

Rohn admits that he had to let go of a lot of plans over the course of his recovery — like returning to the battlefield or running a marathon — but he never gave up on success. 

"As soon as I gave up trying to figure it all out, everything started to open up. When you don't deny an opportunities, you just see where it takes you. When life happens, you find out what kind of person you are."

  • Members of the Penn State Ability Track and Field team, including Max Rohn and Coach Teri Jordan.

    Members of the Penn State Ability Track and Field team — including (left to right) Ed Bonfiglio, intern Sidney Sanabria-Robles, coach Teri Jordan and Max Rohn — compare stats during an outdoor training session. The team trains year-round for national and international competition. 

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated February 09, 2015