After Tom Strang became paralyzed from the waist down following an accident in his Cecil Township home in 1990, he battled depression for years.
But Strang, 77, a U.S. Navy veteran who served as a torpedoman aboard the diesel submarine USS Carp, rediscovered his passion for life when he competed in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Pittsburgh in 1998.
Strang won a silver medal in archery and air rifle, and he was hooked.
Since his debut, Strang has piled up honors, medaling in every game for the past 21 years and earning more than 100 medals.
He competes in track events, biathlon, air rifle, discus and bocce.
Most recently, Strang traveled to Louisville, Ky., for the 2019 Wheelchair Games and turned in a typically dominant performance, including capturing gold in the air rifle, the 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter and 800-meter biathlon.
“The games give me a purpose,” said Strang, who serves as hospital liaison officer for the Keystone Paralyzed Veterans of America. “One day, I was the breadwinner making good money and a really athletic outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing, and then I had the accident and it was over. I ended up overweight, I wasn’t eating right, wasn’t exercising.”
Strang, who had worked as a construction electrician, became a paraplegic after he fell from the loft in his log home and landed on a coffee table.
“There was a metal candy dish on the table, and it pierced the small of my back and severed my spinal cord,” said Strang. “I was rushed to the hospital in Pittsburgh and when I woke up, I was in a special chair and doctors told me I wouldn’t walk again.”
Strang began competing in track events in 2010, after watching the success a friend of his, Jerry Baylor, enjoyed at the games.
“He is an ultimate athlete and when I said, ‘I think I can race,’ he said, ‘I know you can race, you need to do it,’” said Strang. “His encouragement was all I needed.”
Strang changed his diet and started an intense training regimen that he still follows. He lifts weights and does reps with weight-resistant rubber bands.
His stomach, he noted proudly, resembles a washboard.
But being fit not only helps him excel in events: it’s necessary for him to maintain upper body strength to transfer from his wheelchair to his handicapped-equipped van, to bed, or to the toilet.
It also helps him manage neuropathic pain he deals with daily.
Strang has participated in games across the country, including in Alaska, Florida and Puerto Rico.
Strang enjoys participating in all events, but he excels at – and especially enjoys – air rifle, winning 10 gold medals since 2010 at the wheelchair games and became a National Rifle Association national air rifle champion in 2017 and 2019.
He credits his coaches at Frazier Simplex Rifle Club in Washington with helping him improve his accuracy.
Hayes Harvey, who has coached Strang for nearly a decade, described Strang as “a heck of a shot.”
“Tom does a wonderful job,” said Harvey, who also serves as associate vice president of the Washington Wounded Warriors. “He’s a wonderful person and extremely coachable. There are five major points to shooting, and Tom is very good at all of them. He’s extremely accurate and very good. Tom’s a special guy and he’s been very successful in competition.”
An avid hunter before the accident, Strang has participated in injured veterans hunts in New Mexico and Wyoming, where he bagged elk, deer and antelope.
He hunts often on his 15-acre property in a secluded section of Cecil Township and on the 2,800-acre property the Wounded Warriors lease in Eighty Four. He also fishes at the trout-stocked pond on the site.
For several years, Strang and a partner raised and bred champion Treeing Walker hounds.
Strang and his wife, Agnes, whom he said has been a rock and a “saint for putting up with me,” have two children and seven grandchildren.
“He encourages and inspires other people,” said Agnes. “(Being paralyzed) is not a normal life, but there are a lot of things you can do. You can’t give up. I am floored at how far he has come. He’s an inspiration to me. He’s my hero.”
Strang is grateful for the sponsors, organizations and people who have made it possible for him to participate in the wheelchair games for the past two decades.
He has no plans to stop competing.
“It’s very important to me. I don’t know how long I can do this, but I’m trying to do it as long as I can,” said Strang. “I keep going for the people who might be inspired by what I do. I love life and I can’t quit. My plans are to keep strong and to do my diet and exercise program for the rest of my life. It’s who I am.”