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Cancer claims foot, but doesn’t dampen spirit, of Tinker athlete

Tinker AFB employee J. Dee Marinko prepares to serve for the U.S. Men’s Sitting Volley Team in a match against Azerbaijan during the Continental Cup in Kettering, England, earlier this year. The Americans placed eighth in the competition. (Courtesy photo by Kate Fit)

Tinker AFB employee J. Dee Marinko prepares to serve for the U.S. Men’s Sitting Volley Team in a match against Azerbaijan during the Continental Cup in Kettering, England, earlier this year. The Americans placed eighth in the competition. (Courtesy photo by Kate Fit)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- A native Oklahoman who works at Tinker played football, baseball and golf, until cancer cost him the lower part of one leg. Rather than give up athletics, he switched to sitting volleyball, and he may make the Paralympic Games in London next summer.

"I love sports and I want to set an example for my kids, the way my dad set an example for me," said J. Dee Marinko, who has worked at Tinker for nearly three years. He is a forward logistics support specialist responsible for ordering, monitoring and distributing material requirements for B-52s.

The Paralympics are elite sporting events for athletes with a disability; however, the contests emphasize the participants' athletic achievements rather than their disabilities. The Paralympics are held the same year as the Olympic Games.

In just two years Mr. Marinko has already become proficient at sitting volleyball and has made the national men's sitting volleyball roster.

"It's a tough game to grasp," he said. "This is the most demanding sport I've ever been involved in." Sitting on one's backside while popping a volleyball over a net suspended 3 feet above a hardwood floor, "You have to use muscles you've never used before," he said. "It requires 'buns of steel'," he said with a chuckle.

Already Mr. Marinko has traveled to three foreign countries to compete in sitting volleyball contests, with U.S. Volleyball picking up the tab for the entire team.

· He was a member of the U.S. men's team that finished seventh in the Sarajevo Open held in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

· In July, the U.S. men's team traveled to Kettering, England, to vie for the 2011 Continental Cup. Competing against teams from Great Britain, China, Brazil, Russia, Egypt and Azerbaijan, the U.S. men placed eighth.

· Next up were the 2011 Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, in November. The U.S. defeated Brazil in the first match and continued to win, compiling a 6-0 record by also beating Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and Colombia (twice), but lost to Brazil in the tournament final. With that victory Brazil captured the gold medal and the 2012 Paralympic Games qualification spot, while the U.S. men won the silver medal.

Mr. Marinko said he felt like a loser after the team's second-place finish in Mexico, until a Tinker colleague asked him how many other people in the world have a silver medal like his. "There are only 10 of us," he said. "That put things in perspective."

Head Coach Bill Hamiter, of Bethany, said the U.S. Men's Sitting Volleyball Team will now have to "refocus" and set its sights on qualifying for London at the Intercontinental Cup competition next March in Egypt. The top two teams from that tournament advance to the Paralympics next summer.

"Not too many people get to put on a uniform and represent their country," Mr. Marinko observed.

Mr. Marinko and several of his teammates practice daily in Edmond at the University of Central Oklahoma, which became an official Paralympic training site in 2005 and now hosts U.S. men's and women's sitting volleyball teams.

That's convenient for Mr. Marinko, as he lives in Edmond. In addition, six of his nine teammates moved to Edmond in order to utilize the practice facilities at UCO's Wellness Center. In a typical week the seven athletes train from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Monday through Friday.

Mr. Marinko, 31, said the loss of the lower seven inches of his left leg began quite simply: he felt a sharp pain in his left foot. After initially ignoring the discomfort -- "I let it go a little too long." -- he went to a podiatrist, who excised a cyst. Analysis of the biopsy showed that he had an aggressive cancer in his leg that was attacking the soft tissue in his foot.

After amputation of his left foot up to the calf on Feb. 2, 2009, Mr. Marinko spent one week recuperating in the hospital and another week laid up at home, then returned to work. His prosthesis was manufactured of lightweight, flexible but durable carbon fiber, and he feels "no pain anymore" in the affected leg.

Mr. Marinko played basketball, football and golf while in high school at Newcastle, and he played football at Panhandle State University in Goodwell.

After some time spent recovering psychologically from the amputation, "I wanted to get back into sports," he said. "I wanted to get out and get active again." He was introduced to the Paralympics by a friend of his wife, Courtney.

Besides trying to set a good example for his three sons, Mr. Marinko said he wants wounded military veterans who lose one or more limbs while serving in Afghanistan or Iraq to know, "Their lives are nowhere close to being over."