The Unlimited Edition: How Shawn Maloney Found His Calling in Adaptive Sports

This article appears in the April edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine.

SHAWN MALONEY WAS FACE DOWN IN THE SAND along the remote bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Northern California. He couldn’t move.

“It wasn’t the best decision I ever made,” Maloney said of his impulse to go hiking by moonlight with two other friends in April 2015. “It’s usually pretty safe — unless you decide to go out and do it at midnight. We were knuckleheads.”

Maloney, 29 at the time, had just fallen more than 20 feet, and all he could feel as he lay motionless was pain. Excruciating pain.

“I don’t remember the fall, but I remember being on the ground,” he said. “I was conscious, and I knew immediately that something was wrong. I found out later that I had broken two vertebrae in my back and had crushed my spinal cord.”

Once help arrived, a medevac helicopter transported Maloney to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, and within hours, he was in surgery.

“My friends had to call my girlfriend, Mary, who is now my wife, at 3 a.m. and tell her what had happened,” Maloney said. “She didn’t know what she was walking into.”

After the surgery, Maloney couldn’t feel or move anything from his waist down. The doctors told him he had incurred a T10-level spinal cord injury, and permanent paralysis was a very real possibility.

“They usually under-promise,” Maloney said. “They tell you, pretty bluntly, that the chances of you walking again are slim. You’ve got to learn how to live life in a wheelchair. It’s overwhelming news and your emotions are all over the place.”

“As someone that has played lacrosse for most of my life, and has a spinal cord injury, and works for the governing body, that’s the area where I feel that I am the best suited.”

MALONEY’S RECOVERY BEGAN with a week in the ICU after the surgery. He was then transferred to a rehabilitation facility in Vallejo, where he remained for about one month while learning how to get in and out of a wheelchair, how to get himself dressed, how to go to the bathroom and take a shower.

“It’s an absolute grind,” Maloney said. “Just the process of getting out of bed and getting yourself ready to go to the therapy is exhausting.”

While there were no guarantees, therapists told Maloney that the first 12-18 months would be critical in his recovery. His injury had been classified as incomplete, which meant that he had some level of sensation or movement, and he could potentially regain more. 

That didn’t mean Maloney would walk again, but the fact that he was able to wiggle the big toe in his right foot while still in the ICU confirmed that his body was receiving signals from his brain. He had hope.

“That’s the sliver that you hang onto,” Maloney said. “It’s also motivation to push as hard as you can.” 

Maloney looks back now and points to the mindset and training he acquired as a multi-sport athlete growing up in Walpole, Massachusetts, as great assets during the grueling physical therapy sessions. He discovered lacrosse in fifth grade, his love of the game eventually leading him west to play at Colorado College. He remained active as a youth coach after he moved to Oakland to start a web design business.

“I had five straight weeks of intensive physical therapy,” Maloney said. “There were people I saw who had already lost the game mentally. And there were also some who served as amazing mentors, showing me that I could still have a full and enjoyable life. Accepting that some things will be different is the first step.”

THE LACROSSE COMMUNITY RALLIED for Maloney. He received game shorts and uniforms from every team he ever played for, along with new sneakers and other gear. Through the online fundraising platform CrowdRise, more than 700 donors helped raise $100,000 to help cover Maloney’s medical expenses and rehab costs. 

“These were teammates, friends, family friends, even kids I hadn’t seen since middle school,” Maloney said. “That allowed me to take a break from my job and make rehab my full-time job. Their support gave me a chance to focus on doing PT every day and on improving. Everybody doesn’t get that opportunity.”


Slowly, Maloney’s strength returned. He began using a walker and leg braces to take steps. He tried to do 100 a day. Mary spotted him as he ambled around their apartment.

“I was walking, but it was pretty robotic,” Maloney said. “I was fortunate that in a span of about six months, I went from using a wheelchair to a walker and leg braces, then to arm crutches and to just using a cane. Even with the cane, I was still working hard for every step. And you don’t want to fall because that could re-injure the spine. You’re pushing it as far as you can, right to the edge without going off.”

Maloney also returned to lacrosse, joining Oakland Lacrosse Club as a youth coach and serving as an assistant at Berkeley High School. In 2017, he decided to pursue a new career. He enrolled in a sports coaching graduate program at the University of Denver. He and Mary moved back to Colorado, with Maloney also joining his alma mater, Colorado College, as a volunteer assistant coach.

“At that point, I thought that being a college coach would be the ultimate dream gig,” Maloney said. “But in grad school, I learned more about adaptive sports, which made a lot of sense for me. I’m a person with a disability who is interested in sports. It was almost too clear of a sign.”


Maloney, pictured at above using a walker to get around his apartment with his wife, Mary, plays wheelchair lacrosse for the Colorado Rolling Mammoth.

UPON GRADUATION IN 2019, Maloney joined USA Lacrosse as a regional manager based in Denver, while at the same time becoming active as a volunteer (and participant) with Wheelchair Lacrosse USA. He's on the WLUSA board and plays competitively for the Colorado Rolling Mammoth.

“I feel like wheelchair lacrosse and adaptive sports is the area where I can potentially make the biggest impact,” said Maloney, who also became a father in 2021. “As someone that has played lacrosse for most of my life, and has a spinal cord injury, and works for the governing body, that’s the area where I feel that I am the best suited.”

Reflecting on his journey over the past eight years, from that moment on the bluffs in 2015 to now being able to walk again, brings Maloney a strong sense of gratitude.

“It’s a lifelong injury,” said Maloney, who still walks with a limp, deals with chronic pain and on occasion still utilizes his cane for support. “I’m never going to get back to 100 percent of what I was. I had to change my outlook. I’m lucky just being able to stand up and walk around. You realize life is short, and I want to spend my time doing the things I’m passionate about. Wheelchair lacrosse is what I’m passionate about.”