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‘I’m Vested:’ Veteran and Paralympian Laura Ortiz Leads Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness in Miami

By:  Jay Moye Nov 11, 2013
Laura Ortiz exercising with kids

Laura Ortiz – a U.S. Army National Guard veteran and Paralympic champion – has never been one to shy away from a challenge.

The 44-year-old was hired recently as the lead instructor for the Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness program in Miami-Dade County, Fla. The military-style wellness program led by U.S. veterans aims to create fun new ways to get fit and rediscover the joy of being active.

Miami-Dade joins Chicago and San Antonio as the third major U.S. metro to implement Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness. The program will roll out in 12 communities over the next three years through a $3 million grant from The Coca-Cola Foundation.to the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).

Ortiz was born in Puerto Rico and raised, along with her two siblings, by a single mom in New York and New Jersey. She was inspired by a diverse range of influences growing up, and she was active in both sports and an array of social causes. At 23, she signed up for the Army National Guard, where she served eight years as a combat medic and technician.

“I was looking for a greater sense of self-worth… something that would break me down and build me back up again,” she says of her decision to enlist.

She later worked as a lab technician at a blood bank in Maryland before moving to Miami in 1998, where a friend encouraged her to enroll in massage therapy school. She graduated at the top of her class and quickly built a strong clientele of tennis players and other athletes.

Laura Ortiz at the beach

Ortiz, who lost her leg in a 2008 motorcycling accident, has won gold and silver medals in U.S. Paralympic track events and completed two triathlons.

A few years later, she took in her mother – who suffered from hypertension, diabetes and asthma – to care for her at night.

“She was preparing me for what I was going to endure,” Laura says.

Four months after her mom passed away, she faced her greatest challenge yet: becoming an amputee at the age of 38. While riding her motorcycle home from work, she was hit from behind and thrown 50 feet. Her right leg was severed below the knee upon impact.

An experienced motorcyclist, Ortiz took every safety course offered and was never reckless. “I was close to home,” she says, recalling the evening of her July 2008 accident. “That’s where they say your guard comes down.”

“I was in the middle of the street and realized I was still in harm’s way," she continues, “so I dragged myself to the curb as a driver stopped and applied a makeshift tourniquet, called 911 and kept me awake.”

She looked down to see what was left of her mangled leg.  “I knew it would no longer be a part of me,” she says, pausing. “And I was okay with that.”

A helicopter transported her to a local trauma center, where she lost two pints of blood in 20 minutes. When her doctors broke the news that her leg would need to be amputated just below the knee, she asked them to draw a line where they would make the incision so she could mentally prepare for her new reality.

Ortiz spent only a week in the hospital before committing to an intense rehab program. After several months on crutches, she was fitted for a prosthetic leg.

“I knew I’d gotten a second chance,” she says. “I felt a great sense of urgency to give back, and to take advantage of the opportunities that would come my way.”

And they did. Within a year of her accident, she was invited to attend a mobile running clinic and a U.S. Paralympic training camp, where she worked with coaches, nutritionists and fellow athletes. She ran track in high school and was eager to lace up again.

“Feeling the breeze on my face made me feel alive again,” she recalls.

Ortiz went on to win gold and silver medals in U.S. Paralympic track events and complete two Paralympic triathlons. She’s currently training with the U.S. Paralympic Parasailing team.

Laura Ortiz with kids

“My goal is to continue to do things I fear,” she said. “So far, everything I’ve accomplished is because I’ve allowed myself to remain open to possibilities.”

A few years ago, she started working at a local YMCA as a fitness instructor for active older adults, growing the program from two to 45 participants. She became a certified personal trainer and taught spinning and yoga classes before being promoted to wellness and fitness coordinator.

And that’s when yet another opportunity – to spearhead the local chapter of Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness – came knocking.

Now a few months into the job, she says she’s eager to help people of all ages and walks of life get and stay fit through increased access to nutrition and physical activity programs – with a focus on fun and camaraderie.

“This was meant to be,” she says. “This is my lifestyle… I’m vested.”

Coca-Cola Troops for Fitness will hire two dozen local veterans, whose discipline, leadership skills and passion for the greater good make them the perfect candidates for the job. The program will reach more than 5,000 residents through Miami-Dade’s 13 community centers by the end of 2016.

“My hope is that our community embraces the resources and opportunities they now have,” Ortiz concludes. “And that they will be empowered to make healthier choices.”