ORLANDO, Fla. — Fierce competitor Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger will participate in track and field, swimming and rowing at the 2016 Invictus Games being held this week at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World here.
During the 2014 Invictus Games, Elmlinger's first foray into the competition, she earned gold medals in the 100-meter and 400-meter wheelchair races, the shot put, and in the cycling time trial; silver medals in discus during track and field, the cycling road race, and the 50-meter backstroke in swimming. She took fourth place in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle in swimming.
Invictus Games Veteran
Elminger said the first Invictus Games was the first time she had competed as an adaptive athlete.
"With London as my first experience, it set the bar extremely high," she said. "It was surreal to have the support from our families, from the families of other nations and the London community. The vision and dedication of Prince Harry to organize and event at that magnitude is something I will always be grateful to have been a part of. Winning the medals was just a bonus."
The Army nurse said she takes pride in being a member of the American team. "I have always worn the military uniform with great pride, and I'm just as honored and privileged to be selected to wear a different type of uniform to represent my nation," she said. "I'm excited, honored and humbled to represent the U.S. Army and the United States again."
More than 500 wounded, ill and injured service members from 14 nations are competing in 10 sporting events here as they are cheered on by thousands of family members, friends and spectators.
Because the Invictus Games competition is in the United States this year, Elmlinger said, she can have more family here to cheer her on, including her daughter, Jayden, 7.
"I'm grateful for my family to be present to watch me compete, especially having my daughter in attendance for this year's games, since she wasn't able to attend the inaugural games," she said. "These games are very personal for me, given my military career and background, and it's a blessing to have my family in attendance to experience how much these games mean to me."
Elmlinger said her parents, daughter, brother, sister and nephew will be present.
"I know they are proud of how much I've achieved in such a short period after my illness and injuries," she said. "And to be able to display my athleticism at an event such as the Invictus Games is another way I can show them how their support has helped me. Had it not been for my family and the support of so many others these past few years, I wouldn't be at the competitive level I am at today.
"I'm grateful, blessed and fortunate to be able to share this experience with my family. They have worked equally as hard as I have to be in attendance for the Invictus Games," she added.
Elmlinger has been described as determined, a leader, best friend, mother, resilient and soldier by her friends, co-workers, teammates and supervisors. Growing up in Attica, Ohio, she and her three siblings all went to state competitions for track and field and cross-country and played basketball in high school. She said she joined the Army on Veterans Day, her favorite holiday, after talking to her cousins who had served and seeing footage of Operation Desert Storm.
She said she wanted hands-on experience and became a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She served as a medic during two deployments to Iraq and a deployment to Afghanistan and then decided to become a nurse so she could work with wounded warriors in San Antonio at Brooke Army Medical Center, now San Antonio Military Medical Center.
"I enjoyed it, and they probably provided me more than I provided them in terms of encouragement and inspiration," Elmlinger said. "I've met a lot of good friends through taking care of them as they were getting ready for their prosthetics. I enjoyed taking care of them."
Elmlinger had competed in the Army 10-Miler, earned her jump wings, and run a marathon on Veterans Day in under four hours. She just missed the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon and was training for a triathlon when she sought medical attention for a nagging pain in her leg. In March 2013, she was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue tumor in her lower leg, next to her tibia. She worked with her orthopedic oncologist on limb salvage and had nine surgeries. She was treated on the same hospital floor where she had worked before.
When she found out about her leg, she said, her first thought was her daughter and then her career.
"The only thing I cared about after the doctor told me I had cancer was just, 'Make me a mom,'" Elmlinger said. "I didn't care what they did to my leg. I didn't care what I had to go through. Jayden is my driving inspiration. She's why I get up every morning -- why I challenge myself, why I continue to set goals, and why I want to continue to be a better person. She's athletic and a bit of a challenge. I feel like I'm raising myself sometimes, but I love her."
Ever the athlete, Elmlinger fought through her recovery as quickly as she could to show her resilience. She had always wanted to run the Boston Marathon, she said, and when she learned about adaptive sports through Fort Sam Houston Warrior Transition Battalion's Soldier Adaptive Reconditioning Program, she started her new athletic training.
She uses a prosthetic on her leg and is able to walk day-to-day, but she can't run any more. So through Texas Regional Paralympics Sport, she learned about wheelchair racing on the track.
"Adaptive sports and wheelchair racing helped fill the void running meant to me," she said. "I've always been a runner, which began at a very early age, and I no longer have the ability to run. Sports have meant more to me than the obvious physical health benefits. It was a way to deal with life stressors in a positive manner and gave me the avenue to sort through the emotions I was feeling. Losing the ability to run and not being able to participate in athletics or any sort of physical activity while going through my illness and treatment process was very difficult for me."
Elmlinger said wheelchair racing has made the greatest impact on her, because it gives her the same benefits as running.
"Without a doubt, adaptive sports and competitions such as the Invictus Games have allowed me to physically and mentally overcome the hurdles associated with my illness and injury," she said. "Being around fellow freedom fighters, regardless of their home country, who understand the everyday challenges makes it easier to cope with the ups and downs of life. They inspire me to want to be better as an athlete, individual and as a mother."
Boston Marathon, Finally
Elmlinger made her Boston Marathon dreams a reality last month. To be a single parent, serving still in the military, attending regular appointments while dealing with residual medical issues from cancer treatment and training for both sporting events, Invictus and Boston, was challenging, she said.
"It was challenging to train for both [the Boston Marathon and the Invictus Games] simultaneously, and I wasn't able to train nearly to the degree I was prior to my diagnosis," she said. "It can be frustrating, because I'd like to dedicate more time to training or to increase the intensity, but it's a delicate balance for me to conserve energy on a daily balance. But I'm blessed to have potential in the sports I participate in and to be able to represent the U.S. Army and Team USA."
Honoring the Fallen
Elmlinger said she has lost some friends in deployments and others to cancer, and she competes in part to honor them.
"I keep their memory close to my heart, and want to compete and live to my potential as a remembrance of those who are not able to be with us in life," she said. "I carry the memories of my deployments and those who were lost to me daily, and one of the ways I can honor them is by living life to the fullest. They are not here with us any more, and the least I can do is live my life with a purpose and cause. Competing in the Invictus Games is a special competition as a majority of us who are participating can relate to the mental, emotional and physical struggle of fighting for our nation."