My first memory of Jen Armbruster was watching her as a 14-year-old playing basketball at Horizon Middle School. She was far and away the most talented player on the court, and in fact she already had been identified as a certain college prospect — in the ninth grade.
There was just one problem. She was losing her eyesight.
Over the next few weeks in that fall of 1989, this incredibly mature and strong-willed teenager, with her totally supportive parents, shared her story and feelings in a way that impacted me like nobody else I've ever encountered, before or since.
Jen eventually did become totally blind, but that didn't end her promising athletic career — or the overachievement in her personal life. She embraced the sport of goalball (sort of like team handball) and rose to national prominence, with her father Ken doing the same as a goalball coach. They led U.S. teams to the 2002 world championship as well as the 2008 Paralympic gold medal in Beijing.
Now, at 36, Jen is working toward her grand finale in goalball, the 2012 Paralympics in London, while working as coordinator for adaptive recreation and community outreach at Portland State University in Oregon.
Today, Armbruster can add another honor. She's been chosen to the class of 2011 inductees for the Colorado Springs Sports Hall of Fame, the first Paralympian to be so recognized. But here's why it's so totally appropriate: If not for the terrible affliction that struck her in middle school, I'm absolutely certain she still would have earned this honor, because she would have been that successful.
She heads up another fascinating (and, this time, hoops-dominant) Hall of Fame group, which also includes Dan McKiernan, legendary high school basketball coach at Palmer and now Doherty; Dee Dowis, former record-smashing Air Force quarterback (1986-89); Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey executive director; Sam Hairston, star baseball player for the Sky Sox in the 1950s; Burdette "Burdie" Haldorson, two-time Olympic basketball gold medalist (1956-60); the 1978 Wasson High School state champion boys basketball team; and former Broadmoor skating coach Edi Scholdan as well as the 1961 U.S. world figure skating team, all of whom perished in a plane crash near Brussels, Belgium, en route to that year's World Championships.
The 12th Hall of Fame induction banquet will be Tuesday, Oct. 25, at the World Arena, and nobody will be prouder than Armbruster, who's already been named to the Colorado Sportswomen Hall of Fame.
"This is really a thrill," Armbruster says by phone. "It will be great to share with my parents and family."
When Armbruster's story first came out 22 years ago, she took calls of support from all kinds of well-wishers, including her idol — basketball superstar Isiah Thomas, then playing for the Detroit Pistons. Thomas hosted her at a Detroit game in Dallas — then gave her tickets to a game in the NBA Finals.
But after that attention faded away, Armbruster earned bachelor's and master's degrees while developing into a world-class goalball player, capped by beating the host Chinese for that 2008 Paralympics gold medal.
"It couldn't have been scripted any better, just perfect from beginning to end," she says now. "People thought  would be the end for both of us, my dad and for me. After all, I'm not getting any younger. But after we qualified last year for London in 2012, then got back together for a camp, I was just having too much fun. So we're doing it one more time, and we're also trying to help others develop so that we can step away and the program will keep going."
All the inductees and teams this year have great stories, such as Scholdan with his Olympic champions (brothers Hayes Alan and David Jenkins), Dowis as a Heisman Trophy finalist for the Falcons, and the Wasson team led by Jeff Smith, Kenny Page and Arthur "Moon" Griffin that shocked the state.
At the banquet, many will have their chance to tell those stories. But none of them will provide more inspiration than Jen Armbruster.
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