Athletes come from all walks of life, overcoming circumstances and driving themselves to do better. They are well-trained, intensely focused individuals with competitive souls--overall, not so different from Soldiers and other servicemembers.
That may be why it wasn't strange to see Soldiers of all ages and disabilities participating in the 2011 Warrior Games. Injuries, illnesses and wounds vanished amid the enthusiastic cheers of onlookers and the athletic precision present in every event.
The second annual Warrior Games, held in May at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., opened with true Olympic spirit in a procession of athletes and the torch-relay. Medal of Honor recipient former Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta lit the Olympic flame, signaling the official start of the events.
The games, hosted by the U.S. Olympic Committee, were home to 198 wounded, ill and injured servicemembers for two weeks. Athletes arrived at the OTC to train in the high-elevation environment a week before the competition. They honed their track and field, archery, shooting, swimming, cycling, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball skills.
The medal competition ran from May 16-21.
Per the U.S. Paralympic Team website (http://usparalympics.org), an event like the Warrior Games helps elevate the abilities of wounded, ill and injured servicemembers by incorporating athletics into wounded warrior programs. The games also introduce these servicemembers to Paralympic sports, providing new opportunities for growth and achievement and promoting recovery and physical fitness.
"I saw a lot of my guys, once the Warrior Games were announced -- their motivation levels changed significantly," said Holly Roselle, Army swim coach. "They started having a goal, a target, and really amping up a lot of their training."
Soldiers competed in all 15 events at the Olympic Training Aquatics Center, and though the competition was fierce, the camaraderie between the services was evident in the enthusiastic cheers from the crowd.
The Army team earned four gold medals over the course of the meet, to include two shutouts in the men's 50 meter long course freestyle open multi-disability event and the men's 100 LC freestyle open multi-disability event. The meet culminated in a relay, where the Army took silver.
Roselle believes the games are helpful with Soldiers' recoveries because of the psychological, social and physical changes inherent with sports.
Staff Sgt. Stefanie Mason, a member of the Army swim team, was almost killed in a Humvee accident, April 20, 2010, and sustained severe injuries to her brain and knee. She started swimming less than a year later, something she said was instrumental in her recovery.
"It was great to mentally and physically get over (the accident)," Mason said, adding that the games help Soldiers and other servicemembers overcome any obstacles, physical or mental, that they may have. "They focus on their abilities, not their disabilities, and trying to overcome (them)."
Mason's family was there to support her during the games. Her twin sister, Jennifer Mason, was with her from the practice week to the finals as a non-medical attendant. "As a twin, it's great to have her there. She knows what I'm going through," Mason said.
Mason won the gold medal in the women's 50 freestyle open multi-disability event and the bronze in the 50 backstroke open multi-disability event during the games, surprising herself and her coach.
"When I tried to win in the competition, I was trying to go for a meaning behind it," Mason said. "My first medal was my gold medal, which I was trying to swim for my grandparents." Her bronze helped her to remember to always focus on her abilities, and not her disabilities.
"It's pretty clear that sports and athleticism give these young men and women something to strive for, something to focus on," Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, then chief of staff of the Army, said. "Besides being physically important for them, I think it's mentally important for them as well."
Dempsey, who addressed the athletes and spectators during the closing ceremonies, said he believes the games are a manifestation of the trust that the military will live up to its responsibilities to servicemembers, reflecting the care that the services endeavor to provide wounded warriors on a daily basis.
Retired Sgt. Robbie Gaupp joined the Army in 2003, but shattered his right shoulder in 2008 while conducting a joint operations mission with the Border Patrol. He had two surgeries to correct the injury, but still does not have full mobility in that arm.
Watching his fellow athletes overcome adversity and put their injuries behind them inspires Gaupp, who was excited to participate in track and field and sitting volleyball.
"I think that it's a privilege to be competing against people like that because we don't get to do that," Gaupp said of the multiservice competitions. "We don't (normally) get to come out here and race against each other. We're usually out in the field or working or something like that, so the opportunity to come out to the Warrior Games and actually compete against each other's individual groups is amazing."
Gaupp grew up running, and has always loved track and field. He won the bronze for the 100-meter dash open finals, and helped the Army team take silver in the 400-meter open relay. Because of the limited mobility in his arm, Gaupp tried to use the movement of his body to help maintain his momentum during the races. He was a little disappointed he didn't win any gold medals, but was satisfied with his performance.
"I did everything I could to win," Gaupp said.
Though the Marines had the most wins overall in the track and field, the Army held its own, winning the gold medal in two events, the silver in four and the bronze in nine.
Gaupp also participated in the sitting volleyball finals, where fans from across the services cheered for their service teams, decked out in face paint and waving hand-made signs. Despite fan support, the Army team lost 2-0 to the Marines and had to settle for silver.
"I think the Army, we brought what we had, we just got outmatched this Warrior Games, so I guess next year we'll just have to try harder," he said.
The match ended with the Marines chanting "Good game, Army," and the two teams shaking hands, a fitting way to close the final event.
The closing ceremonies where held at Peterson Air Force Base, complete with an awards ceremony and a free concert by Colbie Callait. The stands of the basketball stadium were packed with fans and families of athletes, while the athletes themselves sat in front of the stage on the court. Everyone was treated to a Warrior Games highlight reel, and Marine Capt. Jonathan Disbro was declared the Ultimate Champion.
"What feels right about (the games is) that it's America getting behind these wounded warriors," Dempsey said during the closing ceremonies, "It's not individual service(s), it's not a department, it's not just corporate America. It's everyone."
For a complete list of 2011 event results or more information on the Warrior Games, visit www.usparalympics.org/warriorgames.