By Steve Sears
For Jack Wallace, it’s been two Winter Paralympic Games Team USA Sled Hockey gold medals in a row. His first was in 2018 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, while the second was this past winter in Beijing, China, with a 5 – 0 whitewashing of Canada.
And recently, he finished 10th in the world representing the US National Para canoe spring kayak team at the world championships in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I’m very happy about that,” he says.
Wallace originally grew up in both Franklin Lakes and Oakland, New Jersey. His mom and dad, John and Barbara, raised Jack and his two brothers, Matt and Mike, and one daughter, Colleen. “My mom actually went to Ramapo High School,” Wallace says, “and then me and all my siblings, we all went to Indian Hills. It’s a great part of the country to live in. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel a lot. And you know, northern Jersey is a really, really unique spot, and I think it really set me up for success. Moving forward in my life, the education I got at Indian Hills got me into every college I applied for, and set me up for success at the college I eventually did go to, and that was the College of New Jersey.”
Like most kids, Wallace played a variety of sports growing up, but hockey became his favorite. “My older brother, he played hockey before I did. His idea of fun was to strap some pads on to me and throw me in a net in the driveway, so I would play goalie and he fired shots at me,” Wallace, a diehard New Jersey Devils fan, says with a laugh at the recollection. “I played organized ice hockey for a number of years, played roller hockey in my town, and I played street hockey with my friends. It’s just kind of a perfect mix between all the different sports, but it’s still super fast. It can be unbelievably brutal, very intense, but there’s still so much finesse and skill involved. I’m biased obviously, but I do think it’s one of the best sports out there to blend all the different assets that an athlete can use at their disposal.”
Wallace split his time between playing goalie and defense, and as a Devils rooter, he especially admired goalie, Martin Brodeur, and captain and defenseman, Scott Stevens. “I looked up to those guys a lot when I was a kid,” Wallace says. “It was more like players that I wanted to meet, and since then, I have had the pleasure and privilege to meet both of them. So that’s pretty fantastic. I think it’s just the mentality that they have. As far as Brodeur, he kind of has that crazy style where he’ll make the save by any means necessary, no matter how he has to move his body. And then Scottie Stevens is just absolutely tough as nails. One of the best shutdown defensemen ever, and what a lot of people don’t talk about is how many points he had, and how often he actually scored. He was known for his really big hits and being super tough on guys and not letting anyone get through the middle, but he actually put up some pretty decent numbers for a defenseman in his day, as well as being an unbelievable leader for that team and leading them to championships.”
It was in 2008 when Wallace suffered a life-altering injury. He explains. “We were up in Lake George for a family vacation. It was a yearly tradition to go up there and either rent a lake house, or that year what we did was we camped out. You can rent campsites out on islands in the middle of the lake. It’s fantastic, it’s so nice, and it’s such a great spot. I’ve had so many great memories, and there’s just one pretty bad one.” Wallace and his sister were waterskiing off of the same boat. At one point, the boat came between both and he ended up getting hit by it. “The propeller struck my right leg and severely damaged it to the point where once I got to the hospital, it needed to be amputated. That was a really, really tough time in my life. But the one thing is it makes you grow up really fast. When you go through something like that as a 10-year-old kid, you start worrying about very different things. As a normal 10-year-old kid when you’re in fifth grade or sixth grade, usually you’re not thinking about all your doctor’s appointments or about insurance or all that different stuff that comes into play. When I got thrust into that situation, having to rehab, having to learn how to do so many things again, having to go through those trials and tribulations, it really kind of changes the way you think and matures you much quicker.”
Now an amputee, he and his parents in 2009 learned of sled hockey, and discovered a place in Woodbridge, New Jersey that provided it. Wallace began playing for a club called New Jersey Freeze, and he was a member of the team Woodbridge Warriors. “It was unbelievable,” Wallace remembers. “My mom loves to tell the story. I had a smile from ear to ear. It was always my favorite sport, and I went up to her at the end of the first practice and I just said, ‘I’m back on the ice!’ Now that’s one of her favorite things to say.”
In 2010, one Woodbridge Warrior member would go on to snag a gold medal at the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, Canada. Josh Pauls brought that medal back home and showed it to all the kids at the Woodbridge program. Wallace remembers the moment. “He showed it to me and my dad, and when we were holding it, my dad turned to me and said, ‘What do you think about that? You could win one of these one day.” John Wallace’s words would be prophetic – twice. “From that point on, that kind of became the goal in the back of my mind. Once I was in high school, it became a serious endeavor to make the development team, and then make the national team.” In 2013, Wallace was selected for the first US national development team, spent three years playing for them, and in 2016 was rostered on the US National Team.
Wallace’s first international competition game was against the Republic of Korea. “It was fantastic,” he remembers with excitement. “I had never played internationally before. I was a rookie on the team, so they weren’t really sure what to expect of me and I wasn’t really sure what to expect of myself. But it was an honor and a privilege to get out there for the first time. I had goosebumps putting on that jersey and getting on the ice with all those guys that I looked up to.”
His next big accomplishment and thrill was getting to go to the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games in Korea. He was in Josh Pauls’ skates eight years later. “It was the dream for a long time, and to have it come to fruition, it was almost a full circle moment for me and my family,” Wallace says. “After having gone through so much uncertainty, especially in those early years, it was like I finally crested that mountain; I’d finally come around. And you know, I think they (his family) knew before then that I was okay, and I was going to be fine long term, but I think that was a big old stamp now saying that that (his accident and leg amputation) no longer affects me, I’m doing what I want to do. It was great to go there and not only to win, but to be able to share it with my family. I know how rare of an opportunity that is. They were in the building when I won and I got to celebrate with them after. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in Beijing, so I know how rare of an opportunity that is to be able to do, especially with how large of a group that came to Korea. I know a lot of other athletes aren’t as fortunate to have such a large group of people travel across the world, so I was super honored, and it was unbelievable.”
Wallace also proudly represented the United States in the 2019 Word Championships in Hungary – where he again won a gold medal – and this past winter when he and Team USA again topped the world at the Winter Paralympics. “Going into Beijing, we were training six hours a day for almost a year straight,” Wallace says. “It was a monumental step. It went exactly according to plan. We won the entire tournament by a margin of 30 goals, and I think one team scored one goal against us. We did our job before the tournament preparing. And that was the plan: to be the most productive team there. And we certainly were.”
Wallace, who enjoys playing guitar, is very happy about living currently in Nashville, Tennessee. But there are a few things this Jersey guy misses that Music City just doesn’t provide.
“The bagels and the pizza,” he says. “Those are the first two things I eat every time I come home.”
By Steve Sears