SAN ANTONIO – Paralympic swimming hopeful Army Spc. Elizabeth Wasil doubles as a model of resilience and as a poster soldier for the Army Strong Bands campaign.
Wasil bounced back from triple surgery for injuries to both hips by plunging into a pool and learning to swim competitively. She quickly stroked her way into the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, or WCAP, which provides soldiers an opportunity to train full-time for Olympic sports.
Now she's competing against some of the best para-athlete swimmers in the world, with visions of earning a spot on Team USA for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Wasil won five gold medals in less than two hours April 14 at the 2013 Texas Regional Games at Trinity University. She took the 100-meter freestyle in 1 minute, 12.54 seconds and also won the 100-meter breaststroke (1:26.87), 50-meter freestyle (34.00), 100-meter individual medley (1:12.39) and 100-meter backstroke (1:28.84).
"I want to be that one to beat," Wasil said. "It's amazing to be in WCAP. We have great strength and conditioning coaches, like Capt. [Jason] Barber. His mindset is push me until I can't take it anymore, and I like that, because a lot of people like to back off para-athletes.
"I figure I better push myself as hard as I can, and we'll find out what I can and can't do," she added with a big grin.
Wasil since competed in her second Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she is stationed at Fort Carson. Earlier this spring, she set a national record (3:14:14) for her division in the long course 200-meter breaststroke at the 2013 U.S. Paralympics Spring Swimming Nationals in Minneapolis.
"In Minneapolis, I was seeded as third, 14th, 12th -- I wasn't very promising in my events," Wasil said. "But then I raced them and I placed first in all of them. I had quite a bit of competition at that one. It was the first time I had a full heat of people in my same classification, so it was pretty intimidating, but it was an absolutely wonderful experience."
Wasil already exceeded her short-range goal of returning to duty. She was serving as a medic in Katterbach, Germany, when she was injured.
"I have bilateral hip injuries that I sustained while I was in Iraq," Wasil said of the incident that is still being investigated. "I was there for five months in 2009 and 2010."
Wasil was evacuated and treated at Army Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, and Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Three surgeries later, she has embraced new challenges with a vengeance.
"I showed up at the pool to swim one Saturday morning, and Master Sgt. Rhoden Galloway was there," she recalled. "He asked me if I would like to learn how to swim, because I didn't know what I was doing, and I said 'yes.' His wife, Shayna, started working with me, and within about a month they taught me the four basic strokes. And then I started trying out for the Warrior Games team."
Before departing for the 2012 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Wasil competed at the Texas Regional Games here, where she received her classification as a para-athlete.
"[I] had my first competition, and I fell in love with it," she said. "I had good, patient coaches."
Wasil soon met below-the-knee amputee Sgt. Jerrod Fields, a track and field Paralympic hopeful in the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, at the 2012 Warrior Games.
"He asked me if I had any interest in pursuing swimming full-time, and I laughed at him and I said, 'Yeah, OK,'" she recalled. "And he said, 'No, really, we have a program.' And that's when I found out about WCAP. I started entering every competition I could find within the U.S. to try to make a standard time to get into WCAP."
Wasil needed only five meets to swim WCAP qualification marks in the 100-meter breaststroke and 50-meter freestyle. Had she not participated in the Warrior Games, she would not be training for a spot in the 2016 Paralympic Games.
"They didn't know that I was classifiable, so I didn't swim against the physical-injury category," Wasil explained. "I swam open and I still medaled gold, silver and bronze against able-body females. That's when I thought: 'Maybe I can do this.'"
Throughout her recovery, Wasil yearned to return to duty.
"I kind of had a point to prove," she said. "I really wanted to be found fit for duty. Once I started winning, and once I started doing well in the water, people started taking me more serious that I really could get to a place to where I could be a medic again.
"One of the greatest things that came out of this was July 3 of 2012, after two and a half years, I was finally found fit for duty to be a medic again, which is what I love,” she said. “And then WCAP picked me up, so it's been an amazing year to go from such a low place to being injured and being worried about even staying near the military to being in such a central focus of it and getting to meet so many amazing athletes."
Wasil's story was touching even before she found the military.
Originally from Prescott Valley, Ariz., she graduated from Arizona Project Challenge, an at-risk youth program, at age 16. After attending Yavapai and Chandler-Gilbert Community Colleges for a year, she joined the Army at 17.
"Arizona Project Challenge has unfortunately closed its doors this past year, but it was an amazing program run by the National Guard," Wasil said. "It was a five-month at-risk program, and you actually got some college education while you were there, as well. And they gave you a scholarship when you graduated. I graduated company and color guard commander and I was one of the youngest in the program.
"That's where I fell in love with the Army, because I loved the structure and the mentors I had there that I had never had in my life before. It was the first place that really encouraged you to be a free thinker and to take responsibility. It was so much different than the life I was used to."
Likewise, Wasil is now a poster soldier swimming in a world she never knew.
"In Arizona, we all swam growing up," said Wasil, who did not consider herself a competitive swimmer until last year. "My brother swam in high school, but I did not. I swam when I was much younger, just with the summer team for fun in Arizona. I guess if racing your brother and your neighbor counts, then sure.
"It's been a very strange year,” she continued. “I guess I owe all of it to Warrior Games because I never would have pushed as hard to become competitive. I had no idea what the Paralympic world was."