Paralyzed from the waist down, Jasmin Bambur preps for third Paralympic Games
January 6, 2018
Jasmin Bambur's dream came true in 2010.
He rolled alone into the BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, Canada, in front of thousands of screaming fans, clutching the red, white and blue Serbian flag. It was a day he'd been thinking about since he watched his father on television years earlier as a coach in the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics. It was also a dream he wasn't sure he'd ever accomplish.
Ten years earlier, a recent immigrant to the United States, Bambur flipped his car. He skinned his back, needed 80 stitches in his head, broke his arm and punctured both of his lungs. But most devastating was a complete T9 spinal cord injury, which paralyzed him from the waist down.
A promising career as a professional handball player was gone. His hopes of making the Olympics demolished. His spirit crushed.
But he wouldn't stay down for long.
"Ever since I saw my father coaching in 1984, the goal was to make it to the Olympics," said Bambur. "And when that dream was gone I had to make it to the Paralympics."
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Not only did Bambur succeed in becoming a Paralympian in alpine skiing, but his presence at the 2010 Vancouver Games made him the first ever Serbian representative at the Winter Paralympics.
Now he lives in Granby and is eyeing the 2018 Paralympic Games in early March in South Korea.
Growing up in a war-torn country
The 38-year-old was born in Serbia, but grew up primarily in Bosnia where his father ran a ski resort. Following the beginning of the Bosnian War in the early 1990s, his family returned to Serbia, when Bambur was just 12 years old.
"In 1991, when that awful war started, my family luckily got out," said Bambur. "We lost everything, but we still had our heads on our shoulders and that's all you need sometimes."
His was a childhood vastly different from those growing up in America at that time. War was about 100 miles away. Bambur saw the horrors of people trying to leave the war zone.
"So the life values were kind of messed up, but that was my home and I didn't know any different," he said.
At 16 years old, Bambur began playing team handball professionally. At 18, he decided to immigrate to the United States to pursue his handball career and earn a degree at Middle Georgia College.
"It was absolute culture shock," Bambur said. "We had an economic embargo in Serbia. Imagine a Walmart with just six or seven items in it, and the lights are half on and half off. From that situation I moved to the United States and there's lights everywhere, beautiful cars and people smiling. It was kind of confusing, but I loved it."
No light at the end of the tunnel
In January 2000, at just 20 years old, on a Friday the 13th, Bambur got into the life changing accident.
He was given a small chance at survival, and the first translator to speak to his parents who were back in Serbia even told them he had died. He spent 30 days in intensive care in and out of a coma, and began to lose hope.
"I really didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel," he recalled.
Bambur was understandably depressed, but he began to make progress when his recreational therapist introduced him to a man named Bert Burns, a quadriplegic and gold medal cyclist in the 1992 Barcelona Paralympics.
Bambur was showed photo albums full of Burns's adventures while on safari in Africa, sailing, four wheeling, skiing and much more. But it was shaking Burns's hand that changed Bambur's attitude.
"He went to shake my hand, and his hand was kind of closed," said Bambur. "That mean's he's a quad, and he's a lot more disabled than I will ever be.
"I'm looking at him and we started chatting a little bit. His arm worked about 50 percent, and he was fairly unstable. But he was making things happen. When he left that day I thought if that guy can make it happen, I can make it 10 times better."
He lost his fear that day, and began pursuing sports again.
He was rehabbing at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, but heard about a related camp in Breckenridge. About nine months after his injury, Bambur was on the ski slope learning his way around a monoski. Three days later he was able to ski independently.
Wanting to race
He returned to North Carolina where he was living with his girlfriend, Sarah, and began recreational skiing on a regular basis. In 2007 he married Sarah, and began working as a buyer for a plumbing company. Finding the work unsatisfactory, he decided he wanted to ski race. They moved to Granby in 2008 and Bambur began working with the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Winter Park.
Two years later he was competing on the world stage at his first Paralympic event. He competed in the downhill, super-G, super combined, giant slalom and slalom events. His best finish was ninth place in the downhill.
"I believe this is the greatest honor that an athlete can achieve," said Bambur. "World cups are cool and world championships are awesome. But to represent your country is something else. It just happened that I carried the flag for Serbia. I was the only athlete. It was 70 or 80 thousand people in the stadium and they're all cheering. It was absolutely awesome."
Four years later Bambur competed in the Sochi Olympic Games, this time representing the United States. He competed in all five disciplines, coming in seventh in the super-G.
"To get to represent the United States in Sochi was absolutely incredible," he said. "It's funny that four years prior to that I was the only guy. And then in Sochi we had like 200 people. Everybody was smiling and there were flags everywhere. It was a great experience."
Bambur is currently training for his third Paralympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea, a process that requires constant traveling and practice. Bambur said he spends eight to nine months of the year training all over the world, in places like Chile, New Zealand and Austria. But coming into his third Paralympics, he's a veteran so he has a feel for how things work.
"Knowing the process and knowing what to expect usually helps," he noted. "I definitely consider myself a veteran and I'm ready to get that gold."
Bambur lives in Granby with his wife who works as an elementary school teacher. They have three daughters, Maja, Lejla and Adelyn. When he's not on the mountain, Bambur said he enjoys spending time with his family, fishing, hiking, camping, playing basketball, tennis and kayaking.
While Bambur has his eyes set on gold in PyeongChang, what the future holds for him after that is uncertain.
"I'm probably going to slow down a little bit after these Olympics," he said. "Not necessarily to retire, but try to just spend a little more time at home. I'm getting old."