By Steve ElliottJune 10, 2010
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- The triathlon is considered one of the most grueling events in all of sports, pushing a person's physical and mental stamina to the limit. Now imagine participating in one with a prosthetic limb or while recovering from severe burns.
On a sweltering springtime morning in San Antonio recently, more than 100 men and women showed that even though they are wounded, they are still warriors.
Competing in the 3rd Annual Center for the Intrepid Memorial Day MiniTry was a measure of moxie and mettle for the participants, who used the event to learn about different sports and how to stay motivated through what can be a lengthy rehabilitation process.
Participants included military members from all services injured during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center, Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and Balboa Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Calif. There were also wounded Soldiers from the Canadian army taking part in the three events.
Individual events included a 500-meter swim, 10-mile bicycle ride and a two-mile run/walk. While the events weren't about who wins, they were about making everyone feel like a winner.
The idea for the mini-triathlon came about several years ago when a CFI physical therapy assistant, Troy Hopkins, returned from a triathlon in another state and suggested the idea for the wounded warriors.
"Troy thought if others can do it, why not our patients," said Capt. Terrance Fee, CFI officer in charge for physical therapy and coordinator for this year's event. "He thought this would be a great way to challenge our patients and have them participate in sports few have done previously. The staff agreed and the CFI MiniTry was born."
"You never know what you can do until you give it a shot," said 1st Sgt. Bobby Golden, who has spinal injuries. "Last year, I took part in two of the events, but this year I was able to do all three."
Before the MiniTry took place, Golden's smile and infectious enthusiasm rubbed off on his fellow athletes as he and his wife, Barbara, filtered through the crowd dispensing hugs, high-fives and encouragement to the other participants.
"This is a better turnout than last year," said Golden, who broke his back in a fall from a two-story rope climb in 2008. "I loved physical training and participated in 10Ks, marathons and 'death marches.' This is just another part of life for me to get used to. I'll be finished here in a few months and then I plan on retiring from the Army."
Golden completed the bike event in 32 minutes and competed in the walk portion in a wheelchair in another 32 minutes. He said after he retires, he wants to volunteer at the Center for the Intrepid to help out wounded warriors like himself.
"It's great to see more than 100 wounded warriors out here for this event," said Brig. Gen. Joseph Caravalho Jr., commander of BAMC and the Southern Regional Medical Command (Provisional). "It helps build self-esteem and confidence and their ability to be able to get out and contribute.
"This is a challenge to mind, body and spirit," the general added as he welcomed the participants at the Outdoor Aquatic Center. "Everyone is a winner and we will all cheer you on. I'll be joining you for the run, and I'll let you know now that I start slow and then taper off!"
The day before the mini-triathlon, the athletes took part in a sports clinic at the CFI on triathlon "basic training," sports psychology, nutrition performance and also received instruction about transition techniques for cycling, swimming and running.
"We talked to the participants about energy management, mental skills and what it's like to perform at extraordinary levels," said Megan Mitchell, a performance enhancement specialist with the Army Center for Enhanced Performance at Fort Sam Houston. "If an athlete wants to change their performance, they have to change their thoughts.
"The body does nothing by chance," Mitchell told the triathletes gathered in the bleachers on the fourth floor of the four-story, 65,000-square-foot building dedicated to the rehabilitation of injured Soldiers. "If you know how to change your way of thinking, you learn how the mind can truly have an effect on performance."
Families were also encouraged to attend and participate in the cycling and walk or run events to give an added incentive and morale boost. The event was followed by a community barbecue for all participants, their Families and the volunteer staff.
"The Families have told us they appreciate that they could cycle, walk or run with their loved ones," Fee said. "They really appreciate the opportunity to see their Family member being so physically active in this sporting event."
Before the first event of the mini-triathlon, the 10-mile bicycle ride, the wounded warriors were strapping themselves into a variety of specially-made bicycles that were adapted for their particular needs, such as being equipped with arm pedals and special steering for bikers with leg prostheses.
"It kind of feels like a spaceship," said Cpl. Joshua Sweeney, who was competing in his first mini-triathlon. "It definitely gives you a different view of the road."
Sweeney, who has been seen at the Center for the Intrepid for six months, lost both his legs during a patrol in Afghanistan when he stepped on an improvised explosive device, or IED.
"Events like this are great for us because it gets you out of the barracks, keeps you active and gets you in a social situation," Sweeney added. "The staff at the CFI do a great job and give us any help we need."
"The participants have told us the MiniTry it is fun to do and several said it's a hell of a workout," Fee said. "It's a way to challenge themselves to do something they've never tried before."
In addition to the staff, participants and Families that made the event a success, a number of other groups and individuals also added invaluable assistance.
"We had a lot of amazing people from several organizations help make this happen," Fee noted. "We had a lot of help from Disabled Sports USA, Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Paralympics, Fort Sam Houston Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation, as well as USA Triathlon coaches Shelley Campbell and Bob Byard who all helped put on an great sports clinic and MiniTry event.
"Operation Comfort provided hand cycles, recumbent bikes, or road bikes as needed, as well as helmets for all. They also provided a fantastic Texas-style barbecue lunch and cold drinks for everyone on race day," Fee said. "Thanks also go to our many civilian volunteers from the Alamo City Gator Club - a group of University of Florida alumni led by club president Ray McHale - which provided many volunteers and cheering sections along the different routes."
As the wounded warriors crossed the finish line at each event, each had a wide smile knowing they achieved what they previously thought was impossible.
"The ability to physically and mentally challenge themselves and reach the finish line of this event gives each of them a great sense of accomplishment," Fee said.
"These people are either doing things they haven't been able to do before or they are pushing themselves that much harder to test their limits and surpass their previous best.
"They can swim, bike, or run farther then they probably thought they could," he added. "It is a powerful thing to see and so motivating for all of us to be a part of."