Warrior Games Day 2: Cycling victories come in all sizes
Day 2 kicked off with the first event of the Warrior Games, the cycling events. Warrior athletes were divided into different categories based on their injury level. Categories include the mens open, mens hand cycling, mens physical disability, mens recumbent and womens recumbent/hand. Other cyclists were competing as part of a combination event called the Ultimate Champion, a pentathlon-style event that pits warriors against each other in a variety of disciplines throughout the games. As with all the events, cyclists were present from all branches of the military.
As I started interviewing cycling competitors, I was amazed at the number of those in the different branches who had spent time in Walter Reed during their recovery. I spoke with Navy, Army, Marine and SOCOM veterans who spent time there during their recovery. I was also pretty surprised to learn that I had the same physical therapist as some of competing athletes. Apparently the effects of an amazing therapist were not limited to just me. (Boe, wherever you are, thank you.)
Anthony Robinson is a retired Army sergeant who placed third in the mens hand cycling event. The 2012 Warrior Games would be Robinson’s first year participating. As you probably can tell by the above photo, he is missing his right leg at the hip. After talking to a few different athletes, it became apparent that not everyone was wounded in combat. Statistically speaking, there are a rather significant number of veterans who were wounded in non-combat situations, Anthony Robinson among them. After successfully completing nine years of service and four deployments, he was injured in a motor vehicle accident in Savannah. He woke up four days later to find his right leg missing. He has drifted in and out of Walter Reed over the past few years and currently is prepping to have another surgery at Walter Reed-Bethesda in the next couple of months.
That is an important point to make. Just because the athletes are competing does not mean they have fully recuperated. Many face additional treatments and surgeries as the healing process continues, and will continue to do so for their entire lives. To quote the winner of the Mens Bicycle Physical Disability category, Sgt. Maj. Christopher Self of 5th Special Forces Group,“People ask me, how long did it take you to recover? I look at my watch and say, six years and counting, right?” (I should mention that Sgt. Maj. Self’s win came in the first bicycle race he ever competed.)
Last year Anthony Robinson applied for the games but did not qualify. This year he was selected as an alternate for a teammate who dropped out. Despite it being his first year the games, cycling is not his only event. He is also participating in wheelchair basketball and some of the track and field events. He informed me that most athletes do more than one event so that they can act as an alternate, and to make them more flexible and have a greater chance of participating in the Warrior Games.
After speaking with him for a bit it became clear that he is not taking life lying down, nor is he letting his injuries keep himfrom doing what he wants to. As we chatted, his wife stood nearby holding their son. He praised her for watching their young child so he could prepare in between other obligations. In addition to training for the games, he is also attending a community college in the Baltimore area as a Rec-Therapy major, hoping one day to be involved in adaptive sports.
When asked if he was disappointed in his performance, he said “I really wanted second place, but my bike sits up a bit higher, and the wind was killing me heading up the hill.” When asked if he would adapt his bike to make it more streamlined, he said “No, I'll just train harder.”
Perhaps none were so confident in their new found abilities than Marine Staff Sgt.Nathan Lynch. SSG Lynch lead the Marine cyclists to a three-medal sweep in the mens open by using teamed attacks throughout the race. He was injured in Fallujah, Iraq in 2004 when he was electrocuted by a high voltage line. The incident erased his memory and left him with migraines,back spasms, and photo sensitivity. This would be his second year at the games, but his first gold medal. He stressed the importance of staying active and helping wounded warriors to get back on their feet.
“The only one who gives you limitations is yourself. Doctors will recommend, but ultimately the person who makes the decision is yourself. Nothing is impossible.” When asked if he had anything else to add about his performance, SSG Lynch added, “Like I said on YouTube, enjoy watching the back of my jersey.” (Perhaps the Army Team should recruit Lance Armstrong for next year.)
Regardless of injuries or abilities, this can-do attitude was prevalent among the athletes I interviewed. Many acknowledged that although the medals would be nice, the fact that they were out competing and being active was enough of a reward. There was definitely a sense of camaraderie among the athletes, regardless of which branch of the military they were representing. While the rivalries and point totals are definitely important, athletes seemed to be participating for the same reasons: to further their own recovery and abilities through their participation in the games.
As female cyclist Staff Sgt.Krisell Creager-Lumpkins said, “I am ecstatic. I think the whole concept behind this is phenomenal. I think it really gives people who are wounded an opportunity to showcase their talents despite their abilities. I mean, I think it's great.” She stressed, “There is life after injury.”