Warrior Games: The Heroes of Sport

By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports

When the Warrior Games were christened in 2010, it was not promoted as the “first annual.” Whether the joint effort of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Olympic Committee, originally involving 200 active and retired members from the various military branches with significant injuries and illness, would catch on was unclear.

Now, with four stagings in the books, the event can be considered yearly. Growing numbers of men and women recently gathered in Colorado Springs, Colo., for what resembled a mini-Paralympics that not only emboldened the athletes but offered an incentive for others wounded physically or mentally in service of their country to set the achievement bar high.

The athletes represented the entire spectrum of U.S. troops — Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force and Special Operations. Mixed in were special guests from the British Armed Forces.

They could choose from among seven “adaptive” sports, some with classifications tailored to their specific disabilities — archery, cycling, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field and wheelchair basketball.

The Warrior Games, born out of a cycling trek fundraiser called Road2 Recovery, are geared primarily to those afflicted by amputation, spinal cord ailments, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The message to their colleagues coping with similar challenges is that physical activity can enhance independence, mobility and self-confidence while reducing stress and reliance on some medications.

This year’s field — supported by several corporate sponsors, mainly the financial services provider Deloitte — was 260 strong, and they brought 260 stories of inspiration, each standing on its own merit.

There was Special Operations commander Victor Sassoon (Dupont, Wash.), whose month-long coma, head wounds and partial paralysis drove him into depression that led to a suicide attempt. When Sassoon, an 18-year army veteran, was not aiming a rifle or bow and arrow at the Games, he was cheering on teammates in other disciplines.

And Air Force captain Sarah Evans (Shalimar, Fla.), diagnosed with bone cancer while deployed in Afghanistan. Her left leg and part of her pelvis were removed. Three weeks after surgery, Evans started cycling on a hand bike, and she was one of only nine warriors in the quintuple-event Ultimate Champion ordeal in Colorado Springs.

And onetime Army platoon leader Will Reynolds (Pittsford, N.Y.), who barely survived after stepping on an IED, enduring two dozen operations on his affected leg and arm while spending two years hospitalized. After volunteering at the 2012 event, Reynolds signed up this year for swimming and cycling, one of which he came well-prepared for. Reynolds bikes 45 minutes to work.

And Nathan DeWalt (York, Pa.), carrying the Navy/Coast Guard banner, who was paralyzed from the chest down by a motorcycle accident that rendered him unconscious for 2 1/2 weeks. He has been a Games regular since their inception, this time engaging in wheelchair basketball and shooting.

“The Warrior Games opened my eyes to what adaptive sports can be,” DeWalt said. “Without these Games, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. This event has presented me with so many opportunities.”

Said Sassoon, “I finally began to realize that bad things are going to happen, and it’s all in the way you process it. . . . I stopped feeling sorry for myself and found ways to get involved.”

Motivation could be drawn not just from the medalists but fall athletes, whether it was the vision-impaired runners who required guides around the track or the archers who used their teeth to pull back the bow.

Some absorb inspiration from their peers, such as the quartet of Marines known as the Fantastic Four. While rehabilitating in San Diego from the same type of injuries, they began training together for the Games, pushing each other along.

The competition has generated momentum that does not subside with the extinguishing of the torch at closing ceremonies. The US Olympic Committee reports a measurable uptick with participants continuing athletic activities in their communities upon returning home.

An unfortunate legacy of the nation’s military involvement in the volatile Middle East is the creation of a deep pool of eligible participants for the Warrior Games. One study indicated that more than half of the roughly 1.5 million no longer on active duty have undergone treatment for injuries by the Veterans Health Administration.

These Games were attended by some athletic royalty, from five-time Olympic medalist swimmer Missy Franklin, who passed up a scheduled 18th birthday celebration with pals in nearby Aurora, Colo., and helped light the cauldron at opening ceremonies, to former football luminary Herschel Walker, who witnessed several events, and three-time Olympic beach volleyball champion Misty May-Treanor.

Then there was actual royalty. Prince Harry, who accompanied Franklin in the cauldron festivities, bonded with the athletes, having served in Afghanistan with Britain’s Army Air Corps as an Apache helicopter pilot.

Harry handed out medals, practiced sitting volleyball with fellow Brits, sent off cyclists from the starting line and joined the singing of “Happy Birthday” to Franklin.

The prince played a role in crafting a partnership between the USOC and his foundation in the United Kingdom that benefits veterans of Britain’s armed forces.

As much attention as those celebrities drew, they had to compete with fellow opening ceremonies guest Brad Snyder. In 2011, the U.S. Navy lieutenant permanently lost his vision from the detonation of an improvised explosive device (IED) in Afghanistan. He competed in the next Warrior Games. Then, as a select few standout athletes impaired from military duties do, he stepped up to the Paralympics, winning two gold medals and one silver last year in London.

That is what swimmer Bradley Snyder had in mind, using the Warrior Games as a possible springboard to the quadrennial Olympic format for the disabled. Snyder, a four-time letterman as a swimmer at the Naval Academy, returned to the pool within months after going blind from an IED explosion.

Almost as important as the athletes themselves was attendance by their relatives. Kinfolk on hand  has increased as charitable foundations cover travel expenses to the competition sites at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and the Air Force Academy.

With the Warrior Games flying as high as an Air Force fighter jet, they probably can start making plans for the fifth annual version next year.

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