Centra "Ce-Ce" Mazyck's road to joining the Army started in fashion school, of all places.
In 1994, Mazyck was enrolled at Bauder College in Atlanta, taking classes to become a fashion stylist. But one year into her two-year program, she realized that she wanted more — so she joined the Army Reserve.
"I went in there with the mindset of only doing school," explains Mazyck. "But at the end of the day, I fell in love with it." Which probably isn't that surprising — the military is in her blood! Her mother, her uncles, and her grandfather were all in the military too.
In 1997, Mazyck went on active duty and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
It tested her body and mind unlike anything else she had ever done. At one point, it got so tough that she even briefly thought about quitting. But after watching one of her favorite inspirational movies ("G.I. Jane") and having a heartfelt conversation with her female sergeant about the lack of women in the division, Mazyck reminded herself why she wanted to do this.
"The next day," she says, "I was jumping out of the airplane."
And for the next six years, Mazyck flourished.
Everything changed on a windy November day in 2003.
It was a routine jump, Mazyck says, but as the wind took her, something felt different. "This particular time," she explains, "it kept taking me."
Before long, she was tangled up with another jumper and together, they had to figure out the best way to brace their fall.
"Right before we were about to land, our parachute broke loose," she says. "I didn't have enough time to prepare a proper landing."
The fall broke the L1 and L2 vertebrae in her spine and paralyzed her from the waist down.
After the accident, she went through a tough rehabilitation period.
The doctors said she'd never walk again.
But through it all, Mazyck says, her son inspired her to keep pushing herself. Slowly, she was able to recover — and she even walked again with the help of forearm crutches.
"Everything that I went through — my mental toughness, my physical toughness," says Mazyck, "it was all because of [Tristen]."
During her rehab, Mazyck also received a boost from DAV (Disabled American Veterans), a nonprofit charity that empowers veterans and provides lifelong support for them and their loved ones.
"DAV explained that they could assist with any benefit issues and family issues that I may have," says Mazyck. "Nothing but awesome and kind people."
Once she had recovered physically, Mazyck set two new goals to find purpose after her military service: finishing her education and training for the Paralympics.
She had learned about wheelchair games while in rehab and, in 2005, actually competed at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Minnesota.
But, according to Mazyck, school had to come first.
The idea of finishing her degree was scary at first because she wasn't sure how people would treat her. But she made the leap and enrolled at the University of South Carolina in 2006. Her brother was there to support her through the whole process.
Mazyck graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in women’s studies in December 2010.
"It meant the world to me," she says proudly. "It gave me that boost of confidence that I needed to become a part of society — to contribute to society again [after] being in the military, where, you know, it's our own little bubble."
Then she started training to compete in the Paralympics.
She trained almost every day — which was no easy feat as a single mother! But her mother helped care for her son while she trained. "That gave me comfort in my heart," Mazyck explains, "knowing that I was pursuing my dreams and my son was still being taken care of."
"My support system means the world to me. Without that, there would be no me."
Her hard work paid off. Not only did she compete in the javelin at the London Paralympics in 2012, but she went on to win a bronze medal at the World Championships in France soon after. Today, she travels the country conducting talks and inspiring the next generation of athletes with disabilities.
Thanks to a strong support system and desire to keep pushing herself, Mazyck found a way to keep doing what she loved after her military service.
"Dig deeper and just know that you can do it," adds Mazyck. "It doesn't have to be sports. It doesn't have to be you being a scholar at school. Just find your passion and go with it and don't give up on life — because it's too precious."
"I'm telling you, life truly begins once you live life outside of your comfort zone."