The city of Chicago has long been a friendly face to the armed forces, specifically the Navy. If you’re unfamiliar, Chicago has been home to the Navy’s only basic training facility since 1911 (with few exceptions in Orlando and San Diego). Great Lakes Naval Base was founded 1905 and in 1911, when the first naval recruits walked in, the idea of training sailors more than a thousand miles away from an ocean was un heard of. Since then Great Lakes Naval Base has been coined “The Quarterback of the Navy”. After WWI the city’s Municipal Pier was renamed “Navy Pier” in honor of those naval veterans who served in the 'Great War'. And during WWII, Naval Station Great Lakes served as a training ground for naval pilots learning to take off and land on aircraft carriers (which was more convenient than training in the open ocean where destroyer and sub escorts were required). Now in 2017, the city of Chicago and the US Navy furthered their century long relationship by combining forces to host the first publicly held Warrior Games.Day 5 - Field As the Warrior Games return to Soldier Field for the 2nd half of the week, (see my recap of Days 1-4 here) spectators are still riding on the reminiscent energy of the performances from Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson. Although with a noticeably smaller crowd, the spectators maintained the same electric energy from the the previous days. It was Day 5 of the Warrior Games and the field events were about to take place, starting in the early afternoon. The largest gatherings of spectators seemed to move throughout the day. Usually directly in front of the active lane being used. The field was structured with a large primary walkway down the middle of the field with the events aimed outward toward Soldier Fields stands. While the field events weren’t as diverse as some may have expected. With the consideration of the classes for the adaptive sports there was no shortage of competition.
The events were focused on shot put and discus competitions with individual classes for sitting and standing positions for each sport. Seated athletes were strapped down to a ratcheted down chair that resembled more of a small piece of scaffolding rather than a seat meant for athletics. In all categories, athletes brought a impressive performances as they hurled discus and shots much further than I could get even a paper airplane to travel. As each athlete competed, a gathering of follow athletes not competing in that particularly event formed directly behind the “pit” and became another vital source of support for their fellow brother and sister athletes.Another large aspect of the day and of the games was the large veteran resource event that was hosted at Soldier Field during the morning of day 5. This event allowed local veteran organizations to set up booths and displays in order to promote their product or service to the veterans who were attendance. Booths ranged from local organizations such as Lift for the 22, a non-profit that provides veterans with free gym memberships, to a booth for US Customs and Border agency, a federal agency tasked with protecting US docks, airports, and other international ports of entry to the US. It was another chance for veterans to connect and get in touch with the local and national veteran communities.As the resource event was coming to a close, the event organizers had one more surprise for the vets in attendance. An open panel discussion with executives from several national companies. A main focus was how they interpret and apply the term “veteran/military friendly” into their company standards and policies. There was one bit of dialogue that stuck out to me. That an interviewee should never be afraid to ask a company if they are military friendly. And if the answer is yes, never feel bad asking that employer to explain how they are veteran friendly. Inquire if they enact any policies that aren’t required by law. If an employer can’t give you straight answers for those questions, you may want to proceed with caution.Day 6 - Cycling The cycling competition took place on one of the hottest days of the week and probably for the summer in Chicago. In the early morning, hours before the temperature would reach into the 90’s, event staff and coordinators were already breaking a sweat as they assembled around Chicago’s Museum Campus. The area is a consolidated part of the city which is home to Chicago’s Soldier Field, Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, and the Adler Planetarium.
The cycling competitions exhibited a wide variation in the bicycles and the way the athletes competed on them. In addition to the standard racing bicycle that is most prominent in these types of competitions, there was also the version adapted for athletes with lower body limitations, the hand cycle, as well as the tandem cycle for visually impaired athletes. Athletes raced distances of 10km, 20km and 30km, depending on athlete classification and bicycle type. The course took them from Soldier Field, past the Field Museum and aquarium, towards the planetarium and onto Northerly Island where athletes would be able to enjoy a stunning morning sunrise over Lake Michigan.After about 10:30am the sun took it’s place high in the sky and made it’s presence known to everyone who came out to watch. A converted asphalt parking lot was unforgiving in the summer heat. Throughout the day event hosts and staff were reminded attendees to stay hydrated, and to be sure they were doing the same for service animals. The event staff and city also arranged for an air conditioned CTA bus on-site to be used as a cooling station. In addition to the bus, Boeing brought out their grill team to cook complimentary BBQ strictly for the athletes and their families. Despite the high temperatures and humidity, this event was another high kinetic competition, and one that seemed to bring out the energy in people, even on one of the hottest days of the summer.Day 7 - Volleyball / Basketball Medal Rounds If you had to pick the peak time of enthusiasm, it would undoubtedly go to the medal rounds of sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball. Taking center court of the United Center, the athletes from qualifying teams met to find out who would take the center podium for these two popular team events. Jon Stewart made another appearance to support the athletes and promote the games as he cohosted the ESPN broadcast. Unlike the past events where entry was free, this event was a ticketed event, the only other ticked event was the opening ceremony of the games.Supporters came out in droves holding signs, flags, oversized foam fingers, and as always when it comes to veterans, a bunch of trash talk. Fans filled the seats and the athletes were very much aware of their presence and energy as every so often a player in the middle of the game would call on the spectators for support and distraction.The highlights of the evening were a trifecta of rivalry, spanning decades, was playing out in center court for all to see. Competing for the gold in both events were teams Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. All three teams had already won a medal, now it was time to find out which one they would earn. The matches were a whirlwind of nearly non-stop energy with players yelling over the crowd to communicate with each other during matches. These games proved to be quite a bit more kinetic than the initial rounds, but as the stakes rose so did the performance of the teams. The crowd favorite was undoubtedly wheelchair basketball. With its high intensity players and high energy environment, it had spectators at the edge of their seats and filled the United Center with the same energy as a Bulls game.Day 8 - SwimmingOn the last day of competition the competition moved to the natatorium on UIC’s campus. For a final time, local spectators came out to support the athletes as they competed in the final events of the 2017 Warrior Games. The swimming events were: 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 50m back stroke, and the 50m breast stroke. Even though the UIC Natatorium provided limited seating, there was an energy in the air was was comparable to the 2016 Rio Olympics, where Michael Phelps put on a medal-sweeping performance in multiple events.
The events also showed another diverse set of athletes with some swimmers with missing limbs. Some of them were a bit slower than their four-limbed counterparts, but often put on a more impressive performance. Athletes with obvious obstacles competing in a race that didn't give them any handicap, is a powerful image that sent shockwaves of humbleness and perspective to all who watched on.One memorable moment captured the hearts of everyone who witnessed it; As a athlete swam from one end of the pool to the other, her service dog would run up and down the length of the pool and would be waiting her at the end of the lane she swam in. After the veteran athlete touched the far end of the pool and turn around, her service dog followed suit and returned to the end of the pool where she was to finish. A powerful image reinforcing two things: that these athletes are very much disabled, and that these athletes have had an incredible amount of support from various sources to get to where they are and will need just as much support to get to where they are going.Closing Ceremony After eight consecutive days of competition, the Warrior Games capped of its stay in Chicago with a stunning closing ceremony in the Grand Ballroom of Chicago’s famed Navy Pier. The room was roped off and CPD officers were staged around the perimeter to ensure top privacy and protection, something that was certainly needed considering how many high profile individuals were in attendance.
The floor was filled with dinner tables with place settings elegantly placed around each round table. The 30-piece orchestra, provided by the Navy, elegantly filled the room with classic music as guests arrived. The room was roughly divided into teams, with each branch’s athletes and family occupying their own area of the ball room.Chow was continuous, as the food stations around the perimeter was the ball room were kept stocked throughout the evening. After about an hour, the ceremony kicked off starting with a familiar face, Jon Stewart, formerly of the Daily Show on Comedy Central, as the event's host. After playing the official song of each branch, Jon kicked off the closing ceremony by inviting one of the most well known speakers to the stage, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The Mayor gave a heartfelt speech that nearly ended in tears when he not only thanked the athletes on behalf of the city but also thanked them in a broad sense on a personal level. No matter your political opinion, when he thanked these warriors for waking up everyday and doing what they do, a sense of unity could be felt. You could feel the genuine nature of his words when it came to the thoughts and gratitude he expressed towards the athletes.
At the end of the mayors speech, he ended it with some friendly side jabbing towards Jon Stewart, a New York native, about the ongoing pizza debate. Following the mayor appearance, the next guest, Naval Admiral Jackson walked on deck to deliver her remarks. Admiral Jackson is the naval officer that was charged with making the games a success and she delivered two fold. After Admiral Jackson spoke, one of the more high profile servicemen took the stage. Air Force General John Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave another heart-felt speech, which spoke to the resilience of the athletes and of the country.After the speeches, representatives from each team were presented with a special Warrior Games 2017 challenge coin that would be issued to the entire team. After receiving their coins all representatives turned and walked off save two. Team Australia's representative and the other from team Army. In an off script moment, the two presented gifts to Jon Stewart. Team Army gifted Jon with the game ball they had won the night before at the wheelchair basketball championship. While Australia, gifted Jon with a miniature blow up kangaroo similar to the oversized one they carried with them at the opening ceremony. Jon accepted the gifts and mentioned the had been thanked over and over by people for coming down and being apart of the games, as if his presence was an honor. Jon reinforced that those thanks are not needed and hardly accepted. He brought up trying to parent his 11-year-old son and the challenges that come with teaching him morals and instilling good practices and mindsets. “You all represent what I want him to see and what I want him to be” said Stewart.The ceremony was capped off with the presentation of the Ultimate Champion award. The ceremony concluded with an announcement that Air Force would be the next host of the Warrior Games and that they will be held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. A short video was played and the next head of the Warrior Games was introduced and spoke briefly before an athlete from team Navy walked up to the stage with a lit torch, passed to to an athlete from team Air Force to signify the transfer of authority and responsibility.
The night continued after the ceremony with guests finishing their meals, lining up for pictures with with Jon Stewart, and chatted with teammates. There was some picture taking, some handshaking, but something caught my eye on my way out of the ballroom. An athlete for team SoCom walked past me wearing a jersey of an opposing team. It was from the United Kingdom. I realized it wasn’t a mistake and that some of the athletes were trading jerseys. I had heard of in professional sports but I’ve never in a setting like this. A simple gesture such as trading a piece of clothing to preserve the athletes memories for decades. It’s something tangible that can be attached to what might have been a hugely transformative experience. Whether or not that was their experience I’ll never know but I do know these athletes and games have transferred many Chicagoans and one of the biggest cities in the world.AUTHORS NOTE:Im sure many of you reading this (and the first half of my piece ) have noticed that I rarely mentioned the winners or scores of each event. That was on purpose. Though the Warrior Games are a competition, I felt it was a competition in which the journey and experience far outweighed the results and rankings. The Warrior Games was something much more than a typical sporting event like the Bears or the Cubs. This isn’t an event that was an excuse to go out with your fiends, or to toss a few back to get a good buzz. People came out here for selfless reasons: to support their family, friends, fellow serviceman, their country. The Warrior Games have proven to be anything but an exhibition. With that said it was a competition, so if you’re really interested in the results you can find them here: http://www.dodwarriorgames.com/results