Many wounded warriors endure pain daily during their physical training and rehabilitation. The difference, as they train for athletic competitions like the Warrior Games, is they have a goal that provides extra motivation to fight through the pain in their workouts.
“If you’re just rehabbing to rehab, it’s not as substantial as if you have something you’re training for,” said Cami Stock, this year’s Air Force Wounded Warrior assistant coach and head coach for the first two games. “You’re going to do what you have to do because you know it’s an integral part of your recovery. But when you have a goal, it helps the mental side of it, and they’re able to push a little more, so their tolerance for the pain goes up.”
Retired Chief Master Sgt. Damian Orslene feels pain every day, but his athletic goals are more important to him now than they were before he was injured in Iraq in 2007. A cement truck loaded with explosives detonated near him, causing back, hip and shoulder injuries. He was also eventually diagnosed with traumatic brain injury. Veterans Affairs pain management staff members asked Orslene to keep a pain journal to track the peak times of his discomfort. He threw it away five days later.
“I have to train a lot harder now, and I’m in pain every day,” Orslene said. “People ask, ‘Are you hurting?’ I hurt every day of my life. I’m in a lot of pain right now. It’s not a matter of if I’m going to be in pain today, but how much pain I’m going to have.”
Orslene, who is training for his third and final Warrior Games, works out five days a week. He trains in an Ocean Springs, Miss., gym and has a heavy workout two days a week, with a lighter regimen the other three days.
“Because my upper body was injured, and I’m 47, I have to give my upper body a chance to recover, so on Saturday, I have to do a lighter workout,” he said.
Orslene also rides his recumbent bicycle almost daily. He recently rode the Ride 2 Recovery’s Gulf Coast Challenge, a 450-mile ride from New Orleans to Panama City, Fla. But once Orslene began training for the Warrior Games’ cycling competition, his training focus shifted from endurance to speed for the 18-mile recumbent bicycle race.
“I’m still riding every day, but I switched to two interval workouts a week,” Orslene said. “You can only do it twice a week, or you’ll ruin your legs. Then, I do a really good power workout that is basically the equivalent of doing leg presses or squats in the gym, just trying to blast the legs. It’s varying the workouts, trying to build stronger legs. That just makes you faster because it’s all about speed and preparing me to be quicker.
“It’s also getting good advice, eating right and making sure I listen to my body and treat rest days as important as the ride days,” he said. “That’s not easy for me because I’m not a big rester.”
Like Orslene, Retired Senior Airman Jennifer Stone was heavily involved in sports before she was injured in a drive-by shooting in Denver after she returned from deployment in Iraq in 2006. Stone, who officially retired from her Air Force career in March, is also training for Ultimate Champion, the games’ pentathlon competition. The biggest challenges for her in that competition are air rifle shooting and cycling, two events in which she’s never participated. Stone also was working to make the Air Force’s track and field, swimming and wheelchair basketball teams during the selection camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
Stone faces serious obstacles with her post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, which force her to be more careful in her training than she had to be before the shooting.
“Sometimes, it’s hard because you’re battling with yourself all the time,” Stone said. “You don’t know if you’re pushing yourself too hard, if there are stressors that may trigger you to go back into that state you were in before. I can’t do so much that it will stress me out, then trigger me so I have outbursts and anxiety. I really have to think things through because I know I can’t overwhelm myself. I have a tendency to do that because I think I can handle more than I can.”
Stone, like Orslene and some other wounded warrior athletes, was already heavily involved in her training before the selection camp because of her previous Games experience. Others, however, were just returning to serious physical training at the selection camps. Retired Master Sgt. Kenneth Gestring didn’t start his training earlier because he didn’t know if he would be accepted. He planned to continue his training after he returned home, especially in swimming.
“I still need to continue training in swimming to keep my endurance,” Gestring said. “If I go back and don’t keep swimming, then I’ll lose the endurance I’m building here. This is a good stepping stone for me to go back and make sure I find the time and a pool to swim some laps, keep that endurance up, and also maybe work on basketball.”
Even with the pain wounded warriors endure, balance is a major concern to make sure they don’t go too far and suffer setbacks in their rehabilitation. There are also days when they just don’t feel like working out. In Orslene’s case, he trains anyway because he doesn’t want to ever feel like he did after he was injured, when he didn’t have athletics in his life.
“My wife asks me why I continue to put myself through this,” Orslene said. “I don’t want to get in the habit of quitting because I don’t want to turn my back on sports ever again. I know what the alternative is.”