Nobody who remembers Jasmin Bambur from his time at what is now Middle Georgia State College was remotely surprised to learn he is competing this week in the 2014 Winter Paralympics in Sochi, Russia. His days as a student and handball player for the school were relatively brief, but his impact was huge. Literally.
"He was a big guy," said Dr. Jim Parks, a retired physical education instructor and intramural sports director for the former Middle Georgia College. "Tall. Very athletic. Smart. Full of determination. Cocky, but he could back it up."
Bambur, a native of Serbia, had already moved to the U.S. when he enrolled at Middle Georgia College in the late 1990s, after handball had become a somewhat surprising hit for the school as a club team sport. Bambur played center, which Parks said is somewhat akin to the quarterback's position in football. The 1999 team won the Southeast Conference championship, and Bambur also ended up playing for the U.S. national team.
But Bambur's life forever changed one night in 2000, when he was driving back to the Cochran Campus after a trip to Macon. He fell asleep at the wheel, hit a guard rail and was ejected from the car, according to Parks. He suffered a complete spinal cord injury, which left him a paraplegic, and spent the next year at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta.
Parks still chokes up when he talks about rushing to the Medical Center of Central Georgia the night of the accident and seeing Bambur in the ER. His injuries were horrific. "I can remember it like it was yesterday," Parks said. "That will stay with me the rest of my life."
In a Shepherd Center newsletter article published in 2010, Bambur described his battle with depression as he adjusted to his new life. A therapist encouraged him to find a new outlet for his athletic interests. Eventually, he began competing in ski racing. After becoming a U.S. citizen in 2010, he was named a member of the U.S. Paralympics Alpine Skiing National Team.
"A lot of people would have given up, but not Jasmin," said Chan Jones, another handball team alumni who befriended Bambur and remains in intermittent touch. "His identity really was sports. Skiing is hard enough when you have two working legs, but he kept at it. He said, 'What am I going to do, break my back? I've already done that.'"
Parks hasn't had direct contact with Bambur in some years, but he's kept tabs through Jones, who lives and works in Cochran, and others. He was happy to learn that Bambur married, had children and completed a bachelor's degree from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. According to his Team USA bio, the 34-year-old Bambur now calls Granby, Colo., home.
Hearing about Bambur competing in Sochi gave Parks a chance to recall his experiences coaching handball at Middle Georgia College. The team evolved from a P.E. class he taught in 1996.
"A student asked if we could start organized handball, so I looked into it," said Parks, who had no prior experience with the sport. "It's a very physical game, more popular in Europe than it is here. It was developed to keep soccer players in shape."
There were enough students at Middle Georgia interested in playing that Parks was able to get the attention of two former Olympics handball players. Motivated by a desire to develop more players with potential to play for the U.S. national team, the former Olympians visited the campus and helped get a handball club going.
By the second year of the club's existence, Middle Georgia was competing against the likes of West Point, Air Force Academy, Ohio State and the University of North Carolina "and whipping their hynies," as Parks put it.
The club team got such a good reputation that potential players began responding to the school's online recruitment efforts. That's how Bambur, whose parents had sent him away from his war-torn homeland to live with a U.S. host family, ended up at Middle Georgia College.
"His whole family is in America now," Jones said. "He's loving life."
--- By Sheron Smith
See more of Bambur's bio at http://www.teamusa.org/Athletes/BA/Jasmin-Bambur.
Watch a video of Bambur skiing at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnoOyRLzX3o.
Photo: The 1999 Southeast Team Handball Conference Champions. In the front row, left to right, are Mark Immerkus and John Stewart. In the back row, left to right, are Brandon Lancaster, Chan Jones, Joey Gilmer, Mark Zaher, Jasmin Bambur, David West and Jim Parks (coach).