In 2010 the Department of Defense created the Warrior Games, an annual Paralympics event created to showcase the capabilities and athleticism of wounded service members despite their injuries. The result is a powerful display of resilience and willpower of service members who’ve overcome their own personal limitations and handicap. The Warrior Games, now in their 8th year, has traditionally been held on a military base, with the exception of 2014 which was held at the Olympic facility in Colorado Springs, Colo., (Prince Harry hosted at these games which inspired him to create the Invictus Games).However, this year is different as it is the first year the games will be held publicly not at a military installation. Beating out a list of top contending cities around the country, Chicago was chosen as the first city for the public debut of the games and the US Navy, operating out of Great Lakes Naval Base, was to host. The games consist of eight different team and individual adaptive sports that athletes can participate in; archery, cycling, field, shooting, sitting-volleyball, swimming, track, and wheelchair basketball. For nearly all events, athletes compete in classes that are assigned based on their own functional abilities. Similar to the Olympics where as each athlete represents they home country, the Warrior Games athletes represent their branch of service as they compete. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines are represented in addition to wounded warrior teams from the UK and Australia.
Days One and Two
Two days of events preluded the games’ official opening ceremony. Events included rifle and pistol shooting, in which athletes competed individually, as well as sitting volleyball, and wheelchair basketball, which is played as team sports. The first two days of the games were held at the McCormick Place’ Lakeside Center which provided plenty of space to set up archery and shooting ranges along with three basketball courts and three volleyball courts simultaneously. The day started early and prompt at 8am with shooting. Athletes compete with air pistols, air rifles standing, and air rifles prone while shooting at electronic targets 10 meters away.
After the shooting events came sitting volleyball, an adaptive sport first introduced in 1980 at the Arnhem Paralympic Games, in which athletes play volleyball on a smaller modified court all while remaining seated on the floor. Unlike most of the other events sitting volleyball is a team event and quickly became one of the spectator favorites. Six players from each team played at a team and like the previous event it consisted of athletes of different capabilities and physical limitations but unlike most of the other events the athlete were not classified based on this information but instead they were divided based on their branch and the teams competed for the gold in a tournament style bracket.
There was a small detail that would be the first of many symbolic images throughout these games and that is that each team consisted of a diverse group of athletes. During the games, I witnessed Marines with no legs playing along side Marines with head injuries. Female soldiers with one arm playing against SOCOM athletes with 3rd degree burns to most of their body. There were 5’8” airmen serving to Seamen that looked like they were bodybuilding in a past life. In other contests, this wouldn’t be a common sight, but in the Warrior Games this display is powerful and a testimony to what the games represent; the showing of resilience and willingness to overcome one's own personal challenges to rise to success no matter what. A very emotional and powerful sight indeed that would fuel the spectators for the days to come.Wheelchair basketball, another team sport, was undoubtedly the crowd favorite of the first half of the games. Spectators ranging from athletes family members to local supporters and veterans, and even a children's day camp packed the stands of all three curtsied bleachers. The athletes were certainly aware of their presence and a few athletes relished in the attention as they would motion the crowd to “make some noise!” or “get loud!” in between plays. Wheelchair basketball was a step up in intensity from sitting volleyball. As players raced up and down the court as fast as they could their wheelchairs often created a scene that could be mistaken for the game Murderball.
As the 10 players raced around in their wheelchairs at high speeds, contact was imminent and resulted in a handful of veterans becoming dislodged from their chairs and being tossed to the ground. The image of a Marine with no legs being assisted by his teammate as he struggled to place himself back in his chair was the second powerful image I witnessed. Each time this scene played out the crowd would burst into applause and cheer them on. This was not the same applause one would hear at a football game once an injured athlete stands after laying on the field grass for minutes after a big hit. This applause was not the subtle encouragement of recovery and empathy. No, the crowds applause was filled with jubilant enthusiasm not for the athletes but as a result of how they were being affected by these athletes. These athletes weren’t exciting the crowd but rather inspiring the crowd. It wasn’t the display of athleticism that spoke to the crowd, however impressive, but the show of drive and willingness to compete at the highest level became the spark that would ignite the emotions and passion within the crowd.
The Warrior Games held their opening ceremony on the evening of day two of the games hours after shooting, sitting volleyball, and wheelchair basketball finished. Held at Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, the opening ceremony was a star-studded event where Chicago rolled out the red carpet of welcome ceremonies for the athletes, their families, and supporters. The event is said to have attracted nearly 28,000 spectators. Starting off with three veterans skydiving in and landing just outside the stadium (on account of wind conditions) the aerial display was something to remember. Each skydiving parachuted with an extra piece of gear ranging from an incredibly large showing of the national colors, a set of flags, as well as a three color smoke stream. The skydiving lead into a stadium flyover by five USN F-18 Super Hornets. Immediately after the aerial display, all teams were introduced and athletes took their seats on the field in front of the stage.Following the introduction, the ceremonies well-known host, Jon Stewart, took the stage with a very warm welcome. After some brief opening remarks laced in quick witted jokes, two videos were played. The videos again welcomed the athletes and their families to Chicago. One of the videos starred Mayor Emanuel, and the other, Chicago native, Former President Obama. However, the cameos did not end there. Following the video messages the audience was treated to a live performance of, the Blues Brother’s anthem, “Soul Man” by the original artist, Sam Moore followed by an appearance by Bears starting running back, Jordan Howard.
After most of the celebrity appearances, the ceremony part of the event was underway. Leading with a few videos that featured a number of athletes from various branches. Each video profiled a single athlete and went in depth into their service history to include their injury and their recovery process. Each video left the audience with an incredibly inspiring and uplifting feeling.Following the videos, various athletes from each branch appeared at the far side of the stadium, many of them the very athletes featured in the videos, to carry a flaming torch across the field and ignite the larger flame to officially start the games.
After a few more closing remarks from Jon and select guests, the ceremony came to a close and the after-party began with an outstanding performance by Kelly Clarkson, who’s energy was easily transferred to everyone inside the stadium. Following her was another popular artist, country singer Blake Shelton, who featured a large patriotic tribute to service men and women across the globe during his set. Both artists spent a few minutes to acknowledge and recognize the athletes and their families as well thank them. Both moments reaching a high level of emotion, including one that left Kelly Clarkson in tears, communicated a sense of genuineness and sincerity, something that is arguably missing from many of today’s A-listers.
The track portion of the games were held at Chicago’s Lane Tech College Preparatory high school, one the oldest and the largest high schools in Chicago. Unlike the first two days of events, the track portion was held outside and for the first time athletes would compete under the Chicago summer sun which was in full force. The track portion consisted of standard track events: 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m and the 400m relay. However, some of these were adapted for those with lower body injuries in which they would race in a modified racing wheelchair. Again this event was filled with a diverse group of veteran participates. Double amputee soldiers medaling next to a triple amputee Marines would once again trigger emotions as they selfishly congratulated the other on a job well done.
It feels slightly unethical to try and rate each athlete on something other than their official event time but as the day continued under the high Chicago sun, it was apparent that the crowd favorites were those athletes with lower body amputations running with adaptive prosthetics made for running known as “blades.” Athletes sporting these special prosthetics ran in lanes next to athletes who were not amputees and what's most impressive is that more than a few of those athletes beat their non-amputee competitors (although their competitors also had likely sustained a lower body injury). This image again reinforced the idea that these “games” are more important than winning a medal for running fast. Spectators that filled the stands were injected with a feeling of energizing hopefulness by a power display of resilience.
Day Four of the games were held back at McCormick place which came as a big relief after many out-of-towners were introduced to Chicago’s summertime heat the day before during the track events. Archery, which made its debut as one of the original Paralympic sports in the Rome 1960 Paralympic Games, was the only event to be held on this day. Athletes again would compete in classifications based on functional abilities which included: impaired muscle power/range of movement, limb deficiency and even visual impairment which is its own classification due to athletes wearing blindfolds and shoot with a tactile sight. Other athletes competed with modified bows to allow them to be released with aids using their jaw, chin, or teeth. Athletes are able to use a recurve bow or a compound bow and shoot at a 10’ circle target 50m away. The day was less kinetic than the day before but the spectators didn’t let anyone know it. A set bleachers fashioned to be pulled by a semi completely full of supporters, family members, and even athletes of other events, came out to witness these athletes compete in an ancient skill that has been in use for at least 10,000 years.
The event staff and organizers truly deserve recognition for making spectating the Warrior Games an interactive experience that kept the spectators engaged. Armed with large TVs and a PA system, event hosts were able to keep the spectators informed of what was happening on the range and also fill any dead air with chants, cheering contests, and narrating rounds and winners. This provided an experience that was filled with anything but dull moments.The games so far have proved to quite inspiring, whether you consider yourself a local Chicagoan or a motivated veteran. Watching these athletes compete has been quite a thrilling experience but hearing about or even just thinking about the path they took to get to this place has been the most rewarding. Along with every event comes a little more perspective that can be applied to one’s life. The Warrior Games are off to a great start and the city of Chicago can’t wait to see what these athletes can bring to the medal rounds at the United Center.