COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Two hundred wounded, ill or injured athletes came together Sept. 28 for the start of a weeklong competition in adaptive sports and to claim the rights to the Chairman's Cup in the fifth annual Warrior Games.
For the next six days, five teams of 40 active-duty service member and veteran athletes from the four service branches and Special Operations Command will take to their specialized running prosthetics and custom-built recumbent bikes and wheelchairs to battle for number one in individual and team events.
Created by the Defense Department and U.S. Paralympics in 2010, the Warrior Games consist of seven sports -- track and field events, sitting volleyball, cycling, wheelchair basketball, swimming, archery and air rifle/pistol shooting. The service team with the most points will be awarded the Chairman's Cup, and individuals will be presented with gold, silver and bronze medals Oct. 5 at the Navy vs Air Force football game.
While the games are definitely about friendly competition and who's number one, the real spirit behind the men and women competing comes through in their toughness, determination and never-say-quit attitudes.
For medically retired Sgt. Sean Hook, engaging in the military adaptive sports program is what pulled him through the lethargy and aloneness he felt after being "blown up" twice in Iraq. The blasts caused him to lose his memory, speech and focus. He said he felt a "weird, cloudy feeling," coupled with tears to his shoulders, biceps and rotator cuffs.
"I didn't ask for help, because I thought I could deal with these issues on my own, but things didn't get much better until I found out about the sports program," Hook said, adding that at his first Warrior Games competition, he didn't win any medals. Afterward, he pushed himself more by training at Penn State University in his hometown of State College, Pennsylvania.
Last year at the Warrior Games, Hook won three medals, then just two weeks ago he grabbed six medals -- two golds, three silvers and one bronze -- at the inaugural Invictus Games in London.
The Invictus Games were sponsored by Prince Harry, who got the idea for an international version of the Warrior Games after he'd been to the 2013 Warrior Games.
"This program has changed my life, and my wife will back me upon that one," Hook said. "Even seeing some of these guys coming in here and hearing a bunch of different stories, there's always one that is really, really different, that's inspirational. This is about stepping up and moving forward."
Hook will be competing in discus, shot-put, archery and single as well as team rowing.
Active-duty nurse Army 1st Lt. Kelley Elmlinger came to be part of the Army team not through combat or injury. Rather, she found out last year that she had synovial sarcoma in her lower left leg. The only way for the 16-year veteran and former sergeant first class to be rid of the rare form of cancer was to have it cut out.
Following numerous surgeries calling for grafts from her left forearm, she's been left with permanent foot-drop, nerve damage and nerve impairment in her arm. She's fitted with the Intrepid Dynamic Exoskeletal Orthosis, or IDEO, a customizable, energy-storing brace that allows her to compete.
Like Hook, Elmlinger participated in the Invictus Games, where she took four golds, two silvers and an unofficial bronze in the men's one-mile wheelchair race.
"In track and field they cut women's wheelchair racing, because there weren't enough competitors, but I came to compete, so I asked my coach if she could put in a good word for me and see if I could jump in with the guys,” she said.
Elmlinger was told she could race against the men, but not for a medal. “I said I didn't really want the medal; I just wanted a chance to compete by getting out there and challenging myself," the lieutenant said.
"The Invictus Games was a great way to internationally meet other wounded warriors because we're all fighting for the same cause," she said. "At the same time, we also cheered along our teammates as well as other nation counterparts and it was fun to meet some great people and share some great stories."
Elmlinger found out recently that she'd been picked up for captain, so she's shooting for a 20 year Army career -- and maybe longer. She knows that she can't participate in competitions like the Warrior Games for the rest of her life, but she will for as long as she can.
"Having a chance to do adaptive sports and get back to places as a lifelong runner where I feel comfortable, that's just kind of my little niche; I like that and thrive on it," she said. "I definitely wouldn't be here had it not been for the support of my family and friends, so for me, this is a nice way to give back to all those who helped me on my journey."