Fort Drum Soldiers face tough foes in Strongest Warrior Competition
Jeffrey Toniatti, a member of the Warrior Transition Battalion cadre at Fort Drum, lifts a heavy stone during the Strongest Warrior Competition on Saturday at the Watertown Fairgrounds YMCA.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. -- After last year's successful debut, the Strongest Warrior Competition returned to the Watertown Fairgrounds YMCA, to pit local military, civilian, police, fire and emergency personnel against one another to determine who would earn bragging rights this year.

The event was hosted by the Fort Drum Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division Inc.

"The association exists to preserve and enhance the legacy of the 10th Mountain Division for the future generations," said Jeff Reynolds, a member of the Fort Drum chapter. "For the last seven months, we've all worked hard organizing this event; it's good to see the hard work pay off."

Reynolds said last year's competition raised $14,000, which helps support two of the association's most important activities: the 10th Mountain Division Wounded Warrior Support Fund and the 10th Mountain Division Scholarship Fund.

The 10th Mountain Division Wounded Warrior program, which was established eight years ago, builds support packs that are presented to 10th Mountain Division's Iraq and Afghanistan wounded warriors at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

In addition, the fund has paid to send more than 100 10th Mountain Division wounded warriors to participate in adaptive winter and mountain sports clinics throughout the United States.

The 10th Mountain Division Scholarship Fund was established in 2006 and has awarded 36 $5,000 scholarships to current or former 10th Mountain Division Soldiers and/or their Family members who are either full-time high school seniors or traditional/ nontraditional undergraduate college and technical school students.

"We have different competitors," Reynolds said. "We have a lot of repeat competitors; we have folks from Rochester, Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse, and we even have a competitor from Maine."

At approximately 8:30 a.m., a cool breeze swept through the parking lot of the YMCA and a scale was brought out to weigh in 40 competitors and place them in different weight classes: lightweight (less than 180 pounds); light-heavyweight (181-235 pounds); and heavy weight (more than 235 pounds). The five women who participated this year competed in an open class division.

Before the competition began, retired Sgt. 1st Class Michael Schlitz, a 10th Mountain Division (LI) combat veteran, whom Reynolds had invited, shared his story and reminded everyone present of the importance of their participation.

Schlitz sustained burns to more than 80 percent of his body during his last deployment to Iraq in 2006 when an improvised explosive device consisting of two 155 mm artillery rounds with a propane tank attached to them struck his vehicle, killing his driver, gunner and medic. Schlitz lost both his hands due to the burns and is blind in one eye. To date, he has gone through 83 surgeries.

"Thanks for coming out here today and supporting our wounded warriors," Schlitz said. "It's great to see the North Country community come together to compete, and may the strongest warrior win."

At exactly 9:30 a.m. participants started tackling the five events of the competition.

The stone lift required competitors to lift a stone weighing 100 to 250 pounds from the ground to their chest as many times as possible in 90 seconds.

In the overhead log press, they lifted a six-foot-long steel log weighing 95 to 225 pounds over their head as many times as possible in 60 seconds.

During the prowler, they pushed a weighted prowler 30 yards with weight ranging from 185 to 275 pounds, depending on their weight class, and the tire flip, in which the competitors flipped tires ranging from 450 to 600 pounds, also depending on weigh class.

One of the events required the competitors to pull an 11,000-pound truck 50 feet.

Competitors from the oldest to the youngest cheered each other on in a show of sportsmanship.

Brooks Haynes, a physical education teacher at Immaculate Heart Central High School, was again this year's oldest competitor at 52.

"This is an awesome thing Fort Drum has going on here," he said. "For the last two years I've competed, and it gets harder and better every year. This is all for a worthy cause."

Another competitor enjoying his second time around was Frank Valletta, a senior at Baldwinsville High School.

"This is definitely one of the hardest things I've done," he said. "I want to join the military and serve my country, so this is a great experience for me."

First-time participant from Syracuse, Tracy Stankavage, winner of the women's lightweight North America Strong Man National Championship, said that although the women were competing in an open weight class, it didn't matter.

"I'm the lightest one," Stankavage said. "The people here are so awesome. Everyone here wants you to do well. I'm glad I came."

Some competitors formed teams before coming out to the event. So was the case with Sgt. 1st Class Keith Lehman, platoon sergeant, 3rd Battalion, 85th Mountain Infantry Regiment, better known as the Warrior Transition Battalion.

"Team WTU has five representatives," Lehman said. "Four are cadre at the unit, and the other is a civilian. We thought it was important to come out today and share with our neighbors who do so much for us. Our wounded warriors are worth every ounce of sweat we leave out here today, and then much more."

At the end of the day, before the winners were announced, a Soldier from U.S. Recruiting Command asked the crowd if anyone wanted to participate in the pull the truck challenge. To his amazement, Logan Shaughnessy, a 6-year-old boy from Peterborough Elementary School, Canastota, volunteered.

The crowd applauded and cheered Logan on, as one of the coaches from the competition strapped him into the harness used to pull the 11,000-pound truck.

With determination on his face, Logan grabbed a rope from the floor that was bigger than his arms and started slowly pulling the heavy truck to his destination 50 feet away. Although tired and physically worn out, Logan did not drop the heavy rope until he accomplished his goal of pulling the truck all the way across the finish line.

Once across the finish line and to the cheers of the crowd, Logan raised his arms high in a sign of victory, unaware that behind the truck helping him to accomplish his quest were four of the strongest warrior competitors giving the youngster a little hand.

After a round of applause for all who participated in the competition, the moment of anticipation was at hand.

The winner of the men's lightweight category was Lucas Byron, and Jason Stowell was second. Gary L. Gebo won the men's light-heavyweight category, followed by Cean Olsen. The men's heavyweight champion was Corey Clark, with Justin Poirier next.

The winner of the women's division was Catherine Toniatti, and Stankavage was runner-up.

Each of the winners by weight class was presented with an award at the end of the competition and Reynolds thanked all the sponsors and all his coaches, some which came from as far as Chicago to help out.

This year's competition raised $12,000, Reynolds said. All proceeds from the competition will go toward supporting the 10th Mountain Division (LI) Wounded Warrior Program and the 10th Mountain Division (LI) Scholarship Fund.

"Next year, we will try to do it again," Reynolds said, "but bigger, better and hopefully more competitors."

Page last updated Thu June 20th, 2013 at 16:02