By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports
Ever wonder about the translation of “Semper Fi,” the motto associated with the few, the proud, the Marines?
It is a Latin phrase that means “always faithful” — not, as followers of an annual Paralympics-styled sports festival for armed services members might guess, “kicking butt at the Warrior Games.”
Athletes representing the Marines felt proud once again after winning more than a few medals — enough to claim the “team” title, known as the Chairman’s Cup, for the fourth consecutive year since the event’s launch in 2010.
The medals gap over the other military branches is shrinking. The Army led the count early on and matched the champions’ gold medal total with 34, but was outdone on the award stand for silver (33-26) and bronze (26-21) as the Marines ruled in the pool on the final day. Their overall medals edge of 93-81 was the slimmest yet at a Warriors Games.
The combined Navy/Coast Guard squad collected 23 medals, including eight golds, despite sending a contingent of 35, 15 fewer than the other main military departments. The Air Force stood fourth with 30 total, three of them gold, having been unable to capitalize on a partial home-field advantage at the site in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The Special Operations Command, with 40 strong, settled for 16 medals, five of them gold. The British Armed Forces, who were not eligible for the Cup, were awarded 21 medals, with four gold.
The most prestigious individual honor is the Ultimate Champion winner. Each branch nominated one or two athletes who went through a five-event ordeal, patterned after the pentathlon — swimming’s 50-meter freestyle, track and field’s 100-meter sprint and shot put, a cycling race and the 10-meter prone air rifle. Points assessed to the nine versatile and tireless participants from their specific classification of disability determined the order of finish.
Unlike for most entrants, the disability for Mitchell Kieffer, an Air Force captain from Newport News, Va., at his inaugural Warrior Games, was invisible, at least to the casual eye. Nearing the end of his first deployment of six months to Iraq as an engineer, Kieffer and his convoy were ambushed in their vehicles, which were struck by IEDs, grenades and bullets. Fractures in his back healed. The after-effects of his traumatic brain injury linger. A mathematician and operations research analyst, he has trained himself mentally toward recovery just as other victims of war train physically toward theirs. Kieffer was no newcomer to sports and fitness, having completed three triathlons and worked as a personal trainer.
The Ultimate Champion concept was right in his wheelhouse. Kieffer pocketed a silver in the shooting and was fourth in the bike and swim races. Track and field disciplines proved a bit more daunting — seventh in the dash, eighth in the weight toss — but the aggregate results were enough for him to nose out Marine sergeants Jorge Toledo (Oceanside, Calif.) and Brian Riley (San Diego) for the title. Next were two women, the Army’s Krisell Creager-Lumpkins (Colorado Springs) and the Air Force’s Sarah Evans (Shalimar, Fla.)
Cheered on by his two young daughters, Kieffer, the first Air Force athlete to attain the Ultimate crown, said, “They still think I’m Superman, so this should help at least a couple more years.”
Summarizing each of the seven contested sports:
–In swimming, while the Marines and the Army equaled each other’s gold medal haul of 13, the Semper Fi folks were superior overall by a 34-23 count. Among the female standouts were the Marines’ Breanna Dill (Oceanside, Calif.), with a gold and two silvers in her initial Games after suffering from brain and spinal injuries from combat that left her unconscious for three days, and Kirstie Ennis (San Diego). Believed dead a year ago when her helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan, she underwent facial reconstruction, re-learned life’s basic skills such as talking and walking, and picked up three golds with only two weeks of training.
–In track and field, the Marines and the Army almost finished in a dead heat. Each grabbed 13 gold and 11 silver medals, but the Marines, who excelled in the sprints, eked out a 12-9 edge on bronzes. Varying distances were no impediment to several athletes. The Marines’ Anthony McDaniel (Chula Vista, Calif.) was first to the finish line in his wheelchair at 100, 200 and 1,500 meters. Teammate Derek Liu (Mountain View, Calif.) dominated the same distances in the visually impaired division, supplementing those three golds with a bronze in discus. Army retiree Luis Puertas (Orlando, Fla.), who lost both legs from a bombing in Baghdad and completed a 10K race within a year of amputation, swept the three races in the class for amputees above the knees.
–In cycling, the Army reached the winner’s circle just once but wound up with nine medals, well ahead of the Marines and Special Operations with four apiece. The Army monopolized the women’s 10-kilometer open category, and the three medalists received a bonus while accepting their awards — a kiss from the presenter, Prince Harry. Long-distance cycling is the specialty of the Air Force’s Jeanne Goldy-Sanitate (Rehobeth Beach, Del.). Her race on two wheels ended in a crash, but the staff sergeant who copes with a spinal injury and severe multiple sclerosis took home three swimming medals.On the men’s side, the Marines’ Kyle Reid (Chinook, Mont.), who has battled post-traumatic stress syndrome, nearly needed an extra suitcase to haul away his medals — three golds, four silvers.
— In shooting, the Marines were mostly on target, taking 13 medals out of the eight events, five more than the Army. No division was closer than the prone air rifle for marksmen with upper-body disabilities. Marine teammates Pedro Aquino (Hawthorne, Calif.) and Angel Gomez (Visalia, Calif.) each amassed 498.6 points. Aquino was handed the gold based on a tiebreaker format. Gomez got a small measure of revenge in the standing format, claiming a silver to Aquino’s bronze.
–In archery, the Army secured half of the dozen medals, with the Marines taking four. The highest drama came in the individual compound, with top-seeded Frank Barroqueiro (Gainesville, Ga.) of the Army and experienced Marine marksman Matthew Benack (Jacksonville, N.C.) in the Games’ first-ever “shootout” after the twosome tied. Barroquerio registered a bull’s-eye and perfect score in the extra period.
–In sitting volleyball, the Marines flipped the result of last year’s gold medal match and downed the Army in two heated sets, both of which ended 25-21. The runner-up was much improved in the finals from a one-sided whipping by the Marines in an earlier round.
–In wheelchair basketball, Army extended its superiority, knocking off the Marines in the rivals’ third straight finals 34-32. The margin of victory was much smaller than the 25-point spread in 2011 and 20 points a year ago.
During closing ceremonies, when the Marines were presented the Chairman’s Cup, those who bore responsibility for it broke out into the branch’s theme song, wailing “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”
At the fourth Warrior Games, they were the best — barely — from inside the walls of the gymnasium to the waters of the pool.