At Fort Meade, tryouts for Warrior Games show 'ability over disability'

Staff Sgt. Brett Althoff, 43, Staff Sgt. Curtis Winston, 29, and Sgt. Robbie Gaupp, 26, pose after competing in the morning 30-kilometer cycling event as they try out for the Army team at Fort Meade.
Staff Sgt. Brett Althoff, 43, Staff Sgt. Curtis Winston, 29, and Sgt. Robbie Gaupp, 26, pose after competing in the morning 30-kilometer cycling event as they try out for the Army team at Fort Meade. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun)

When it happened, he didn't feel a thing. Within 30 seconds, "all the pain in the world" coursed through his body. And U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Curtis Winston recalls thinking, among many other things, that he'd never play sports again.

Wilson, a former high school athlete, was helping lead an Allied mission near Baghdad in 2007 when his Humvee hit an IED, triggering an explosion that shattered his left leg and knee and caused multiple fractures to his right hand.

He didn't walk for five months. He endured more surgeries than he cares to remember. He still can't run, jump or lift more than 30 pounds. Yet there he stood Sunday afternoon beside an oval track at Fort George G. Meade, sweat beaded on his forehead after completing a 30-kilometer bicycle ride in a personal best time of 71 minutes.

The event was one of more than a dozen held for about 70 soldiers at a tryout for the Warrior Games, an Olympic-style competition for wounded, ill and disabled service members and veterans that takes place next month at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"I knew my life would go on [after my injuries], but I never thought that would involve competing," said Winston, 29, a Chicago native now stationed at Fort Shafter in Honolulu. "The camaraderie, the chance to see all these other athletes, the opportunity to compete again — the Warrior Games mean everything to me right now."

A joint program of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Paralympic Military Program and the Department of Defense, the Warrior Games give service members from across the Armed Forces an opportunity to compete for medals and bragging rights in seven sports, including swimming, archery, shooting, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball. The games were first held in 2010.

Each competitor on hand was trying to become one of the 50 who will represent the Army in the games, where they'll face 150 counterparts from the Marine Corps, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, and Special Operations between April 30 and May 5.

"[The tryouts] are very competitive," said 1st Lt. Lacey Hamilton, who suffered a broken neck in a vehicle accident in Herat Province, Afghanistan, in 2010, and was competing as a runner in the 100-, 200- and 1500-meter events and as a 10-kilometer cyclist. "I can't be sure I'll make it, but the more events you compete in, the more valuable you are to the team, and the better your chances are."

Hamilton is stationed at Fort Meade, where she's undergoing rehabilitation in the Warrior Transition Unit. She had also tried out in the shotput and in three swimming events earlier in the week.

To Army Lt. Col. Keith Williams, the branch chief of adaptive reconditioning within the U.S. Army Warrior Transition Command in Alexandria, Va., the games and the competition leading to them are part of a larger healing process the Army now offers to soldiers and former soldiers, whether they're suffering from physical injuries or psychological difficulties related to their service.

About 9,000 soldiers are assigned to 38 transition units in the command nationwide, along with 10,000 others who are part of the Army's Wounded Warrior program for soldiers and vets suffering from severe physical disabilities.

Soldiers who have experienced trauma face physical and emotional obstacles in returning to normal life, Williams said, adding that sports can offer a means of reaffirming an all-important sense of mastery.

The program "gives [these] soldiers a chance to see what they can accomplish within their new lifestyles," he said, adding that even the challenge of learning small skills — such as how to fill out the forms to enter — can help those suffering from cognitive difficulties.

Plenty of camaraderie was evident on a breezy, sunswept day as athletes from across the nation took part in events such as 100-meter sprints and mile relays. Late in the afternoon, about 80 people roared as Spc. Brynden Keller, a native of Indianapolis, faced down Cpl. Thomas Bolden of Waukesha, Wis., in a 200-meter run.

Keller, who wore a prosthetic device below one knee, ran to a hefty lead on Bolden, a lifelong running fanatic whose leg was amputated above the knee after he stepped on a land mine in Afghanistan in 2010. Both are in recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital.

Bolden's prosthesis featured what he called the latest upgrade: a fully flexible knee joint. It wasn't enough to keep him close to Keller, but he beat his personal time by three seconds and was all but guaranteed a space on the Army team.

Competitors in Colorado will be divided by the nature and severity of their injuries, and Bolden was the only above-the-knee amputee to compete during five days of tryouts this week.

Most on hand were competing in multiple events, hoping to help the Army maximize the impact of its final team of 50, the members of which will be announced later this month.

Robbie Gaupp of Texas, a retired Army National Guard sergeant, was also a multiple competitor. In 2008, he tore up a shoulder one night when he collided with a tree while pursuing illegal aliens near the U.S.-Mexico border.

After completing three running events, he paused to put the day's events in perspective.

"Whether you're an amputee or have brain injury or PTSD, in [the Warrior Games], you get a chance to show your ability over your disability," he said. "It's not about the obstacles life puts in front of you. It's what you do with them."


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