COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. —
Members of the local community and families of athletes enjoyed the experience of being an adaptive sports athlete during the 2018 DoD Warrior Games’ first two-day exposition at the U.S. Air Force Academy here.
About 300 wounded, ill and injured service members representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command, along with allied armed forces from the United Kingdom, Australia, and for the first time at Warrior Games, Canada, are competing in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball through July 9.
The games are free and open to the public.
“In addition to putting on a top-notch athletic event for our athletes, the Warrior Games Expo was designed to give families, caregivers, military colleagues and the general public a first-hand experience of the world of adaptive sports,” said Air Force Col. Cary Hepp, lead public affairs officer for the 2018 DoD Warrior Games. “We also invited service organizations and adaptive sports’ national governing bodies with chapters throughout the country. The intent was to link Warrior Games athletes and their families up with organizations they can connect with when they return home.”
Throughout the two-day event, visitors enjoyed face painting, games, science technology, engineering and mathematics demonstrations for kids and visits from Air Force Academy athletes and “Wings of Blue” parachute team members.
They also had a chance to meet national wheelchair rugby team members and head coach James Gumbert, and see a demonstration and experience the a little bit of the sport themselves.
Ryan Schwab, from Castle Rock, Colorado, said he brought his sons, Nikolas, 9, and Cohen, 5, out to the expo because he loves the military. His father, Leonard, served in the Army during Vietnam, and his father-in-law retired from the Army as a command sergeant major. He was also a Vietnam veteran.
Nikolas said he enjoyed rugby. “It was really run and entertaining,” he said. “Some kids out there might not play like we do but this is something they could do to entertain themselves and get their muscles up.”
Cohen said he enjoyed playing but got a little too much into the match. “I scored a point but the blue team stole that last point. I loved smashing into that blue team,” he said.
Air Force Capt. Alicia Hogan, 10th Medical Group, U.S. Air Force Academy, brought her twin 5-year-old daughters, Emma and Courtney, to the expo to give them perspective.
“I wanted the girls to see some of the different abilities these wounded warriors had, and some of the modifications they made so that they can compete in the same sports we see on TV,” Hogan said. “It’s an incredible experience just to see it from that perspective, and to realize just how amazing some of the things they’re able to do are.”
Hogan said she thinks it’s a great opportunity for her fellow service members and the general public to see what the athletes have trained and worked toward. Hogan said she’s even pulling her daughters out of daycare to try to watch some of the events such as swimming and basketball.
“We’re at the pool all the time in the summer so for them to see how other people are able to swim, even with disabilities or physical limitations, it will be amazing,” she said.
Nikky Williams, from Atlanta, is part of a team of broadcasters from across the nation that came here to support the games and cheer on the athletes and their families throughout the week. She said the events have been an eye-opener.
“One of the main things you see when you get out here, especially for someone like me who hasn’t been around military and military families, is it really takes a village,” Williams said. “It’s not just the sacrifice that our servicemen and women make. It’s their families, as well.
“Saying, ‘Thank you for your service,’ just doesn’t seem like enough,” she continued. “I just feel like there’s nothing I could say to express my gratitude to what these strong heroes and their families sacrificed just so that we could be here to do what we love.”
For Lauren Knoff, 17, participating in wheelchair basketball helped her learn that she could still be active. She visited the expo with her sister, Faith, 16, and mother, Cathy. They were there with their uncle, Air Force Master Sgt. Dave Long, from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
“I’ve had a lot of surgeries on my leg, and I struggle with a lot of sports-related stuff. It’s really cool to see that there’s stuff people like me can do and still be active,” Lauren said. “It’s cool to be able to try it and feel what it’s like to play the games like the warriors do.”
She said her favorite activity of the day was wheelchair basketball. “Basketball is so fun,” Lauren said. “It’s a lot of hard work. Your arms can get pretty sore but it’s really fun to fly across the field.”
Lauren said she spent a lot of time in a wheelchair during her surgeries on her leg but hadn’t interacted with people who were also in the chair. “I’m not used to being able to bump people and knock them away,” she said. “I’m not used to how the wheels are. You can go really fast. It’s nice. They’re super-light and super-tiny. You can be a speedster.”
Lauren said watching the track and field athletes compete on June 2 inspired her. “It was so awesome,” she said. “I almost cried so many times in the last two days, just like at everything. It’s overwhelming. They’re going above and beyond. It’s really inspiring to me. It makes me want to get out and do stuff like they do. It’s really cool.”
Athletes Heal, Regain Confidence
“Participation in adaptive sports programs saves lives,” Hepp said. “The Warrior Games and other rehabilitation and recovery programs offered by each service provide opportunities for athletes to heal and to regain confidence and purpose. Additionally, these athletes are competitors at heart, and the Games offer them the experience to enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow teammates throughout the week.”
Two-time Paralympian and Paralympian coach Karin Korb also led wheelchair clinics throughout the two-day event. She said her favorite part about wheelchair tennis is that it is an inclusive sport that helps disabled athletes be prideful in their disability.
“You can play standing. Amputees can play on their prosthetics. You can be a chair user; you can have a chronic health condition. Tennis is so inclusive,” she said. “Disability is something to be prideful about as a new identifier; just like people are proud of their color or sexual orientation.”
She said having a disability can be difficult because of barriers but “you can’t legislate attitudes but we can legislate what access looks like,” she said.
Korb said having events like this where people can experience, first-hand, disability through sport, help demonstrate that it’s okay to approach people with disabilities and have open conversations.
“Sport is the game-changer to so many people, and that’s why we love it so much,” she said.
(Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDoDNews)