By PAT GRAHAM – AP Sportswriter
Paralympic ski racer Jasmin Bambur looks at the footage from Ukraine – tanks rumbling, explosions, families fleeing for safety – and the flashbacks arrive.
Back to three decades ago, when he and his family escaped conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
“The noise (of war),” the 42-year-old said, “you don’t forget it.”
Bambur moved from Bosnia to Serbia and eventually to the United States, where he was preparing for his degree and training for team handball when a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down.
He battled depression, discovered competitive alpine skiing, represented Serbia at the 2010 Paralympic Winter Games and obtained American citizenship. This week in China, he is aiming for an elusive medal at his fourth Paralympic Games.
“Fourth time is the charm,” said Bambur, who finished 16th in the men’s giant slalom sitting standings on Thursday in Beijing, with another medal chance this weekend in slalom. ‘t been able to reach yet.
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Bambur’s childhood memories resurfaced with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His family fled Bosnia in the 1990s when war broke out, taking only a few possessions with them. They moved to Serbia, where jobs and money were scarce for his mother and father.
Bambur found an outlet through team handball, a sport that combines elements of basketball and football. When he reached military age, his family sent him to the United States. He attended present-day Middle Georgia State University and trained in team handball.
On January 13, 2000, Bambur was returning home from a practice session when he fell asleep at the wheel. He hit a curb and his car rolled, throwing him through the windshield.
Bambur skidded along the road as his car tumbled ahead, settling into a ditch about two football fields away.
The next thing he knew was that he was waking up in a hospital room with a nightmare: over 80 stitches in his head, his right shoulder dislocated, his left arm broken, the skin of his back missing and a spinal cord injury.
Doctors told him he would never walk again.
“I was like, ‘You have no idea what I’ve been through,'” Bambur said.
The gravity of it all really hit him about 48 hours later when his mother came into his room.
“It was literally impossible,” he said of entering the United States from Serbia at the time. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is serious.'”
Bambur soon fell into a deep depression.
“I tell these people, ‘Just let me die,'” he said. “There was no reason to get better.”
A therapist kept encouraging him as he went through rehab. She brought an album full of photos from skiing and kayaking trips. Next to her was her husband, who was in a wheelchair.
“I was like, ‘This guy has an absolutely fabulous life. Going around the world and doing all kinds of fun things,'” Bambur said.
Then he was introduced to the person in the photos – Bert Burns, 1992 Paralympic gold medalist in the 4×400 relay.
“From that day on, I literally took the bull by the horns and rode into a sunset,” said Bambur, whose mother, father and brother moved to North Carolina. “I am forever grateful to this family, for what they have done for me.”
Bambur dabbled in wheelchair tennis and basketball before turning to ski racing. It was always something he loved (his father was once a ski coach at a resort in Bosnia).
“I found an activity that involved speed, that was very aggressive, that I was completely independent — and I looked cool,” said Bambur, who resides in Granby, Colorado.
He married his wife, Sarah, in May 2007 and a month later they moved to Colorado so he could try out ski racing for a season. If he didn’t succeed, he went back to his desk job.
“It was a big motivation,” he said, “because I didn’t want to go back to that cabin.”
He represented Serbia at the Paralympic Games in Vancouver in 2010. Shortly after, Bambur obtained US citizenship and started running for the US team. His best finish was seventh in the super-G at the 2014 Sochi Paralympic Games. He finished 12th in the super combined four years later in Pyeongchang.
For the Paralympic Games in Beijing, Bambur shifted its focus from speed events to GS and slalom. His ambition remains the same as always – gold.
“Everything I do has to be 110 per cent, whether it’s playing tennis, swimming, fishing, hunting,” said Bambur, who has three daughters, all of whom started skiing at a young age. “I always want to be on top of my game.”
It also has a head start away from the slopes.
Bambur and his wife started a medical supply business after the Paralympic Games in Sochi. It also sends equipment to Serbia to help its Paralympic program. In addition, he gives encouraging talks to those who are going through similar traumas.
Just like he once received.
“I always tell them, ‘Hey man, you’re the only one who can change all that. So how about putting a smile on your face, getting out of this room and I’m going to show you some of the ropes of the game. craft,'” Bambar said.
“Because life is full of surprises.”
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