Two weeks before the inaugural Warrior Games for disabled servicemembers opened at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., the Marine Corps sent its team ahead to train – and acclimate to the altitude.
“Nobody else did that,” said Charlie Huebner, chief of Paralympics, laughing. “So, we’ve heard from all of the commands and all of the service branches that training has already begun.”
The other services better come fierce to the next Paralympics-style competition, which returns to the Olympic facility May 16-21, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen announced Monday.
“We look forward to an even better experience next spring,” Mullen said. “In fact, we encourage all wounded warriors with a desire to compete to notify their own squad leaders, NCOs or leading petty officers to get the application process started right away.”
“When we focus on abilities rather than disabilities, we see that physical fitness and sports can have a healing effect on the mind, on the body and on the soul.”
The games are considered a prep event for servicemembers hoping to compete in the Paralympics, the Olympics-style games for disabled athletes. But they are also considered a great rehabilitative tool for the athletes, most of whom suffered combat-related injuries.
“I didn’t realize what the effect was going to be,” said Marine Corps Master Sgt. William “Spanky” Gibson, 39, a fast-talking, can-do guy who survived Amphibious Reconnaissance Course and U.S. Army Ranger School. Gibson’s left knee was blown apart on foot patrol in Ramadi in 2006, requiring amputation of his leg. Within a year of his injury, Gibson was competing in triathlons.
Gibson, who works in the Pentagon, said the Warrior Games shows injured troops, particularly younger ones he mentors, how they can still exercise their competitive nature and serve their country.
One of them is retired Staff Sgt. Scott Martin, a Marine who suffered traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress from a roadside bomb under his vehicle in 2006. Martin was the “ultimate champion,” winning a multi-sport event. Now he is training at the USOC center with hopes to make the 2010 Paralympics U.S. cycling team.
Roughly 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. team at the Paralympics are injured servicemembers coming from all of the armed services, including three Iraq and Afghanistan veterans on the 2008 games squad, Huebner said. But the program offers something even deeper for most.
“People are jumping back into life,” Huebner said. “I’ll be the first to say that it’s not just sport that does that. But it's sport that allows that opportunity for people to do things with their friends and do things with their families. Compete a little bit, but also dream a little bit.”
In May, the inaugural games drew 187 athletes. “Those athletes stood as a testament to the true Olympic spirit and the essence of sport,” said Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, in a statement.
The 2011 games still will host around 200 people, limited in part by logistical requirements at the facility, but some already hope they will expand to a much larger pool of athletes.
“I was a little disappointed, I would’ve liked to see more,” said Navy Lt. Melanie Monts de Oca, from Lakeland, Fla. The lieutenant is a care manager for Navy Safe Harbor at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla. She also is a former national champion powerlifter.
But Monts de Oca suffered extensive injuries in a snowmobiling accident, and later a stroke causing traumatic brain injury. At first hesitant to attend the games, she went, lived among real Olympic and NCAA athletes in training, and medaled in the shot put, 50 meter freestyle and 50 meter backstroke.
“It was pretty incredible, I have to admit.”
For Stars and Stripes' coverage of the 2010 Warrior Games, see:
Torch is lit on inaugural Warrior Games in Colorado
Warrior Games profile: It all came down to one arrow
Warrior Games profile: Parachute jump was staff sergeant's warmup routine
At Warrior Games, competitors battle in name of recovery, kinship