The biker’s handcycle broke as he struggled to finish the competition during the 2011 Warrior Games. As the wounded warrior continued his push up the hill, athletes from competing service branch teams clapped and cheered for him to reach the finish line.
Such emotional scenes weren’t uncommon in the first two years of the Warrior Games. Athletes wanted medals, and each team wanted to win the Chairman’s Cup, but they also remembered the bond everyone in the competition shared.
“It’s true camaraderie, very competitive, and the teams really rally around the service branches,” said Laura Ryan, the U.S. Olympic Committee associate director who has served as operations officer for all three years of the competition. “But when something like that happens, they don’t hesitate to cross the lines to help the other teams to finish a challenge or try to do their best.”
Twenty-nine Air Force wounded warriors will get to experience this camaraderie again as they compete against 167 of their Army, Marine Corps and Navy, Coast Guard and Special Operations counterparts as well as 20 British service members in the 2012 Warrior Games from April 30 to May 5 in Colorado Springs, Colo. Archery, cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball competitions are scheduled to be at the U.S. Air Force Academy, with the opening ceremony and shooting competition at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
The U.S. Olympic Committee and Department of Defense created the first Warrior Games in 2010 to introduce wounded service members and veterans to Paralympic sports and to help them in their rehabilitation. Many athletes returned to their treatment facilities and Warrior Transition Units and participated consistently in sports programs, Ryan said. However, the goal of the Warrior Games is more than getting athletes involved in competitive sports. It’s encouraging a healthier and happier lifestyle.
“This is an (annual) event used as a tool to support larger programs in an effort to get more and more injured service men, women and veterans into regular physical activity, competing in their communities, interacting and engaging with their families and friends, and just really having better overall health and life,” Ryan said.
“There’s research out there that points to the fact that anybody who has a physical disability who participates in regular physical activity has an overall higher self-esteem, employment rate and education rate,” she said. “There are so many positives that go along with it, and we’re not just talking about competing on a high level. We’re talking about shooting hoops on a club team or maybe going out with your kid to a park. This is a big event for us, but it’s really a tool to get a lot of our folks into that other programming.”
Athletes eligible to compete are considered wounded, ill or injured, and may have a disability such as an arm or leg amputation, back or spinal cord injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder or be visually impaired. Athletic eligibility for the Warrior Games differs from the Paralympic Games because athletes with brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities that aren’t Paralympic eligible or classifiable are allowed to compete in the open category.
“A major difference of why this isn’t necessarily a Paralympic event is because our competition is open to everybody who is served by wounded warrior care programs,” said Steve Cowles, the U.S. Paralympics military programs manager. “In the case of the Air Force, anybody served by Air Force Warrior and Survivor Care is eligible to compete in the Warrior Games. Not all of these people would classify and be able to participate in a true Paralympic event, so our (event) is a little more broad. That’s why we have the open category and allow some of the (athletes who suffer from) traumatic brain injury and PTSD who may not be severe enough to be classifiable in a Paralympic event. Because they’re in this program, they’re allowed and welcome to compete.”
This year England-based charity Help for Heroes will join the U.S.’s Veterans Affairs, the United Service Organization, Fisher House Foundation and Bob Woodruff Foundation in supporting the Warrior Games. The British team will compete against the five U.S. teams in archery, cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming and track and field.
“With our athletes Britain-bound this summer for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we are excited to host our friends from the U.K. for this exciting competition,” said Scott Blackmun, the U.S. Olympic Committee chief executive, in a news release. “The Warrior Games truly exemplify the power, not just of sport, but of the human spirit. The USOC and our partners at the DOD and VA are committed to ensuring that physical activity programming is available at the community level for our nation’s heroes to participate in sport.”