As the Army and Marine teams slugged it out on the volleyball floor in a down-to-the-wire semi-final match, tension on the sidelines heightened to a near frenzy. Both sides cheered, chanted, and stomped until the floor vibrated and the roar of the crowd crashed against the gymnasium ceiling.
As the Marines rallied, a name rose from the din.
“Send in Chuck,” they shouted, pumping their fists in the air. “Send in Chuck!” The crowd parted and former Marine Corps Lance Corporal Chuck Sketch was ushered to the sidelines.
“Let me at ’em,” he growled as the crowd cheered harder.
But Sketch wasn’t on the court to play. A brain tumor left Sketch blind more than a decade ago. Instead, it was the inspiration Sketch provided that earned him the title of Marine Corps team captain. He had become the icon of optimism for his fellow wounded warriors.
“I don’t want this to end. This has been the most incredible week of my life,” Sketch said.
The inaugural Warrior Games held in Colorado Springs, Colorado, brought together wounded, injured, and ill service members to compete in a week-long series of events that challenged the warrior athletes to prove that they could succeed despite their injuries.
Two hundred soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen, marched into the renowned U.S. Olympic Training Center before an enthusiastic crowd of locals, families, and volunteers in an Olympic-style opening ceremony to celebrate the first Warrior Games this May. The opening included a tribute from Rolling Thunder, a torch relay featuring a team member from each service, and the lighting of the Olympic flame by Roger Staubach, famed Dallas Cowboys quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy while playing for the U.S. Naval Academy. Hundreds of spectators waved flags, took pictures, cheered, and clapped as the formation of troops passed by basking in what has become the gold standard of community support this new generation of veterans enjoys.
Held on the campuses of the Olympic Training Center and the U.S. Air Force Academy, the competitions included individual and team events in shooting, swimming, archery, sitting volleyball, cycling, wheelchair basketball, and track and field.
The U.S. Army and its partners, the U.S. Paralympics, and the USO announced the much-anticipated games at the Pentagon only months ago. The organizations, along with the support of sponsors, quickly funded and provided logistical support to bring the event to fruition. The military services recruited athletes, each selected to compete because of the progress they have made using adaptive sports as a method of rehabilitation, officials said.
With only months to plan, the games proved to be a hit with the athletes, families, and volunteers, drawing crowds with competition reaching the level of intensity equal to that of a Paralympic competition.
“I walked into one of the events and [the room] was dripping with intensity. The [sitting volleyball] was unbelievable,” said Charlie Huebner, chief of U.S. Paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “The crowd, the emotion, it was just phenomenal. It was everything we wanted it to be for the warrior athletes.”
Huebner said that while not everyone dreams of becoming a Paralympic athlete, being active is a piece of the rehabilitation puzzle, which has helped wounded warriors better adapt when they return to their homes.
“We have dreams of winning medals at the games,” he said. “But it’s also about the dreams of hitting that homerun in your backyard.”
For many of the competitors at the games it is those dreams that have kept them alive.
Their war stories are Hollywood worthy—their recoveries often seemingly miraculous. It was not the physical limitations of the athletes in attendance that defined the games—the omission of the word “wounded” in the title was not unintentional. It was the spirit of these warrior athletes that leaders hoped to capture. It was the fight left in them that drove them to compete.
Navy Master Chief Petty Officer James Wilson was grateful for the dark Ray-Ban sunglasses he wore as he carried the ceremonial torch down the Olympic path at the opening ceremonies. The salty, 32-year veteran sailor said he was glad no one could see the tears streaming down his face.
“I was speechless,” Wilson said of the moment he was asked to lead his team at the games. “That was a dream of mine since I was a child. I thought I’d never realize it.”
Wilson has always been athletic, and like most children, he once had dreams of a sports career on the playing field. But real life led to a career in the Navy. He stayed connected by coaching sports and staying in shape until a 40-foot fall from a ship in 2003 broke his neck and back, and eventually claimed his right leg.
At the games, Wilson stood, against all odds, on a sports field wearing a U.S. uniform and competing against troops half his age.
“I’m going to hold up just fine. It’s these guys I’m worried about,” he joked.
Air Force Technical Sergeant Israel Del Toro, who was burned over 80 percent of his body by a bomb blast in Afghanistan, is notorious for joking about his very visible injuries.
“I didn’t want to get burned,” he deadpanned when asked what he was thinking as he carried the torch for the Air Force.
Del Toro, or “DT” as he’s called, competed in several events, taking on any and all challenges.
“I want to see how well I can do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if I am first, second, third, or last, as long as I finish.”
Del Toro noted that he and the other competitors were part inspired, part inspiration.
There is an odd, harsh reality among this group. A troop struggling with one amputation is encouraged by someone who has overcome the challenges of a double amputation. In turn, they are inspired by a triple amputee.
It’s difficult to feel sorry for yourself in this crowd—not because someone always has it worse, but because many who have been through worse have gone on to realize dreams they never thought possible.
James Stuck, a U.S. Paralympic athlete, knows the battle these competitors face. A Paralympics ambassador, he worked as a mentor with the athlete warriors during the games.
The U.S. Paralympics has had an ambassador program since its inception, but it formalized its efforts about three years ago. Thirty athletes serve as ambassadors traveling the country, talking in schools, visiting military hospitals, and rehabilitation facilities.
A combat-wounded Army veteran, Stuck understands what it’s like to serve in uniform. He also knows what it’s like to face life-threatening injuries, and he understands the desire to become “normal” again. More important, he has gone beyond normal to show them that they can do everything they did before, and sometimes more.
“A lot of people get down on themselves,” he said. “Some guys blame other people. It’s a big snowball effect, and you hit a downward spiral. We try to avoid that. We try to turn it around to bring them back up.”
Stuck said he met a Paralympics ambassador at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., while recovering from a roadside bomb blast incurred during a deployment in Iraq.
At Walter Reed, he started attending Paralympics camps, working with the athlete mentors. A former soccer player, Stuck said he enjoyed sitting volleyball because the teamwork and camaraderie reminded him of his favorite sport.
He kept in contact with the Paralympic coach and expressed his desire to train with the U.S. Paralympic team. In February 2007, he was invited to train full-time.
Now Stuck is in a position to help those who are where he was a handful of years ago. The majority of the mentors’ influences are not wielded in their words, but more by their presence on the courts or the fields. They work with the service members, giving them pointers on their sports.
It is their examples that speak louder than any motivational speeches, Stuck said. “We try to show people that there is life after amputation. You can go about your normal daily activities after you get injured,” Stuck said. “Even if you don’t want to go into sports and become an athlete, you can still go on doing everything.”
In fact, Stuck said, the athletes often end up doing more than they could before their injuries. Before his leg was amputated, Stuck said, he had never skied or snowboarded. Now, he is active in both sports.
Sketch, the Marine who captured the heart of both his teammates and the other competitors, fits that bill.
Not that long ago, Sketch was counting the days until his death. A brain tumor had taken his career, sight, legs and, for the most part, his life. He was told a year ago that he had about six months to live. His friends told him to find a nursing home where he could live out his last days. Sketch had joined the Marines in 1991 but found out about the tumor in 1993. In 1997, he lost his sight. In 1998, both of his legs were amputated because of blood clots.
“I thought my life was over. I didn’t think I would be able to do anything again,” Sketch said.
But with the help of his determined father and a new chemotherapy treatment, Sketch is still alive. In the past year, he has skied, surfed, and even swam his way across the country participating in nearly every disabled veteran, Paralympic-sponsored, get-off-your-butt-and-do-it program he could sign up for.
“It used to be that being disabled was the worst thing. Those days are over,” he said. “I’m more active now than I ever was.”
The games’ top athlete also said adaptive sports deserve the credit for his recovery.
The top individual honor—the Ultimate Champion award—went to Navy Petty Officer First Class Daniel Hathorn, a naval special warfare boat operator who was hit by a truck driven by a local during an overseas deployment last year.
Hathorn reflected on the year since his injury. It’s almost unbelievable, he said, to be performing in such a way after suffering several broken bones and collapsed lungs. He still doesn’t have full use of his left arm and hand.
“Rehab was very tough,” Hathorn explained. “I have to say, though, that the Warrior Games is the culmination of my recovery. Coming this far is phenomenal.”
As Army Brigadier General Gary Cheek walked through the gymnasium during the week’s final gold medal team matchup he was greeted with smiles, laughs, and a whole lot of back-smacking.
He looked very tired, but happy.
Cheek is the commanding general of the Army’s Warrior Transition Command and spearheaded the military’s efforts to launch the Warrior Games.
“This exceeded my wildest expectations,” he said. “I didn’t know that we’d have this kind of emotion and the size of the crowds that are here.” In the gym lobby, a soldier walked up and grabbed Cheek’s hand and hugged him.
“Thank you for putting these on, sir,” he said. “Seriously, thank you very much.”
Cheek laughed and told the soldier to get ready for next year’s games.
“I’m going to start getting ready as soon as I have boots on the ground [back home],” the soldier said.
And that’s exactly what Cheek and other officials hope will happen. Already they are making plans for the 2011 games, and talking of possibly bringing in international competitors. They want more preparation and qualifying competitions held at the regional level.
But what they really want are year-round efforts at the wounded warrior units to train for the annual competition. They want to encourage wounded service members to use sports in their recovery programs.
“Doing it 52 weeks of the year instead of one week a year is what we’re really after,” Cheek said.
“What we’re looking for is that energy to go back to our units where these service members are recovering and spread that fire. That’s really what this is all about,” he said.
Rocky Bleier, a former Pittsburgh Steelers’ running back and combat-wounded veteran himself, spoke to the competitors at the closing ceremonies. After joking about his own symbols—those of his four Super Bowl rings—Bleier told the warriors, “All symbols in our lives are important.”
The medals around the athletes’ necks are symbols and reminders of the successes they’ve had at the games, feats they’ve achieved, and the barriers they’ve overcome to get where they are today, he said.
“Getting to the top and becoming the best doesn’t just happen, it takes hard work and perseverance, dedication, and passion. It takes a vision and a belief of what you want to become and how you see yourself.
“You’ve become a symbol. You’ve become a torch. You’ve had an impact on people’s lives. And [your] responsibility is to take this experience back to those who aren’t here. To let them know what they have missed, what they’re capable of and what they can do.”
“That is your task. That becomes your success, for the games next year, to see many more of our wounded warriors [at the games].
“I’m proud to have served our country,” Bleier said as he closed the games. “I’m proud, more importantly, to be one of you.”
The competitors were tired, banged-up, and bruised, but smiling, with story after story of inspiration arising from the competition by the close of the games.
There was the soldier who overcame her injuries, and her lifelong fear of water, to compete in the swimming competition. There were the cyclists who helped a lagging competitor to the finish line, giving up any hope of winning the event themselves.
There was the runner who, despite finishing last in every event he entered, kept on running.
And there were the crowd’s cheers, just as loud for those who finished last, as for those who finished first.
Because in the end, what separated these games from other competitions was that there were no losers among the 200 warrior athletes.
Cheek said wounded service members early on sometimes focus too much on their injuries and what they can’t do. These games helped them focus on what they can do, he said.
“They found within themselves things that they didn’t know were there, and that’s what this is all about,” he said. “In the end, it’s all about focusing on abilities, not disabilities—what you can do, not what you can’t do.”
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Ultimate Champion Final Standings: The Navy’s Dan Hathorn of Ithaca, New York, won the title of Ultimate Champion besting 17 other service men in a pentathlon-style competition at the inaugural Warrior Games. Hathorn used wins in the 1,500-meter run and 50-meter swim and earned a point in the 100-meter dash. The Ultimate Champion events included air rifle, 50m freestyle swim, 100m sprint, 1500m run, and shot put to decide the Warrior Games’ top athlete.
Bryan Darrow’s friends tried to convince him to make the trip from Hays, Kansas, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the van with his father, a World War II veteran, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He was set on riding his bike despite the fact he’d been placed on the kidney donor list in January. Darrow, though not a veteran himself, wanted to show his support for the troops participating in the inaugural Warrior Games in Colorado Springs.
He completed the ride to deliver five very special American flags for the opening ceremonies of the games on May 9, and made arrangements to meet his fellow Rolling Thunder buddies the next morning. Darrow passed away that night.
“We were told at 11 a.m. when we arrived to stage for the [flag presentation] ceremony,” said David Stapleton, a retired Air Force master sergeant and president of Rolling Thunder, Inc., Colorado-Chapter II. “We were all hurting very bad, [but] we pulled it together for Bryan.
“After the ceremony, we all rode over to his house to pay our respects,” Stapleton said. “His dad told us not to mourn Bryan, but to celebrate his life. Bryan left doing what he loved best, riding his bike with friends and showing his support for our troops.”
Darrow’s Rolling Thunder chapter has established a memorial fund in his name to benefit the state veterans’ home in Florence, Colorado. Donations may be made directly to Rolling Thunder, Inc., Colorado-Chapter II (RollingThunderCO2.com).
Colorado-Chapter II was one of several from the Rolling Thunder organization that escorted five American flags from New York’s Ground Zero, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the opening ceremonies of the inaugural Warrior Games. They also made stops at the Pentagon and Somerset, Pennsylvania.