For Carlos Leon, life has been filled with the unexpected. From serving for the military in Iraq to a traumatic accident that left him quadriplegic, he has faced adversity time after time and powered through these major challenges only to meet success. That drive will carry him across the stage on Thursday, Dec. 12 at 1 p.m., when he will receive his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.
Leon, 35, signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from Coconut Creek High School. A parachute rigger in the third radio battalion, he was responsible for packing and maintaining personal parachutes and jumping out of military planes. His service brought him to Iraq in 2004, where he served for one year in the radio reconnaissance platoon.
After returning home in May 2005, his journey took him to his next station in Hawaii. It was then the unthinkable happened. On June 18, 2005, a traumatic swimming accident in the ocean left Leon paralyzed from the neck down. Diagnosed with quadriplegia, doctors told him he would never walk again.
This life altering incident did not hinder Leon’s motivation. Just one year after his accident, Leon attended a sports summit in 2006 hosted by the U.S. Department of Defense in San Diego, where he decided he wanted to compete in the Paralympic Games one day. He immediately started training relentlessly, rebuilding his strength and working to regain movement in his arms in order to compete. His dedication paid off, even enabling him the ability to walk short distances.
“If something is easy, I don’t want to do it,” said Leon. “I want to do things that challenge me. All decisions in life come down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. People become paralyzed by that question and their current situation. For me, I said ‘yes, I want to try.’”
Leon achieved his goal in the summer of 2007, competing in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in track and field at the Parapan American Games where he won a silver medal in discus and a bronze medal in shot put. He went on to compete in his first Paralympics in 2008 in Beijing, China, in shot put and also competed in the 2011 Parapan American Games in Mexico.
Leon received the highest honor when he was asked to attend the 2012 Paralympics in London as the USA athlete ambassador. He met dignitaries from all over the world – an experience he says he will never forget.
After retiring from a successful athletic career, Leon set his sights on a major educational goal. He found his next challenge at FAU in spring 2017 after earning an associate degree at Palm Beach State College, where he also fulfilled the role of president of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.
“When I first came to FAU I was intimidated. I never wanted to be treated differently because I was in a wheelchair or had a physical disability,” said Leon. “From the moment I stepped on campus no one ever treated me differently. If anything my professors pushed me further and helped me achieve more. They fully accepted me for who I am.”
Following graduation, Leon’s dream is to work for Disney World as an engineer with the ultimate goal of making people happy.