COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- More than 200 wounded military athletes have converged at the Olympic Training Center and U.S. Air Force Academy here to compete in the annual Warrior Games May 10–17.
Some will be doing so in spite of severe injuries: swimming with just one limb and sprinting without sight. These warrior athletes are all recovering from illness, wounds or injuries sustained on or off the battlefield. They’re from all branches services as well as the United Kingdom.
The Warrior Games gives these men and women the opportunity to compete in archery, shooting, track and field, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, cycling and swimming. The games also give them the opportunity to heal each other by spending time with those in similar life situations.
Their effort is inspiring to spectators too and as a result the games inspire more people every year.
“When you launch something like this you can see how many people truly want to get involved and get behind it and support and you can see this growth over the years. You name it people want to get involved, they want to know, ‘how can I help?’” said Beth Bourgeois, U.S. Olympic Committee Public Relations.
More than 1,000 people volunteered to provide support for the event, doing everything from filling water bottles to helping officiate sports.
This year’s competition has attracted more than 400 media members from around the world so the events will get broad coverage, something that many of the athletes said is good because people will better understand what motivates wounded warriors and the healing process they’re going through.
“People like to see and hear success stories and hear about others overcoming odds, becoming successful and enjoying life,” Bourgeois said.
Therapy through competitive sports wasn’t always available for these warriors, nor were many symptoms and treatments of their various ailments understood. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder wasn’t recognized as a clinical condition until 1980, Vietnam era services didn’t have specific units like the Marine Corps’ Wounded Warrior Regiment and the Army’s Warrior Transition Command and the Warrior Games were only established in 2010.
Now, the athletes not only get to compete, they also receive other training and therapeutic assistance. They receive on-site training from professional coaches and treatment from massage therapists and physical therapists. They have a rigorous training schedule during the days prior to competition and a recovery schedule for the evenings. For one week, they are basically like Olympic athletes.
It takes work to get to the Warrior Games though. Hundreds of athletes attend service specific “trials” to compete for a spot on their braches’ Warrior Games team. During the Marine Corps Trials, seven countries attended. But only a maximum of 50 for each service are selected to compete at the next level, sometimes less.
Since the athletes represent their military branch in the games, they take competition days pretty seriously. The Marines don’t want to be beaten by the Army, the Navy wants to outswim the Air Force and so on. Bragging rights are pretty valuable here.
But it’s more than that. The competitors say at the end of the day, they value the shared camaraderie with the other athletes, irrespective of service.
“Not everyone who comes out and tries a sport is going to be a Paralympian, that’s not our goal,” Bourgeois said. “It’s to help provide training, expertise and link people with programs where they can go play wheelchair basketball or get on a track in their hometown community.”
However, athletes have the opportunity to compete at the next level. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers a training stipend for veteran athletes who prove they can make an impact at the Paralympic games.
For most athletes though, it’s a couple weeks that allows them to forget about their disabilities as much as possible and just focus on competing, enjoying camaraderie and making good memories.
To see the complete competition schedule, visit: http://www.teamusa.org/US-Paralympics/Military/Warrior-Games-presented-by-Deloitte/Competition-Schedules.aspx