This post is by Zona Lewis from Navy Safe Harbor, who is attending the 2010 Warrior Games in Colorado Springs, Colo.
I am not an athlete. I have never been one unless you count lettering in volleyball as a line judge in high school, so my concept of teams has been limited to those that revolved around an office or project environment. Competitive, yes, but not the same as that invisible bond that pushes athletes competing in a team sport to have such passion and verve for one another that drives them to excel, push each other to do their best, and to push themselves to be better for the benefit of the team.
I witnessed the birth of a team Tuesday.
On Monday, 25 athletes from the Navy and Coast Guard arrived in Colorado Springs, Colo., to compete in the inaugural Warrior Games. They came from different services, backgrounds, hometowns and varying levels of athletic skill. Some have been living with their disability for almost two decades; others barely a year. Some are on active-duty, while others are Reservist or veterans. Few knew each other; none had ever competed together. How were these virtual strangers tied together by their sea service and title of wounded warrior going to compete against teams that had been training and working together for weeks, even months?
Tuesday, the day after their arrival at the Olympic Training Center, was the athletes’ first opportunity to train together for wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball. I should mention their first competition would be that very afternoon.
In two hours this group of athletes would have to learn the rules of the game for two sports, develop their skills, and learn to maneuver a wheelchair designed for basketball competition; a seemingly daunting task.
To make matters a little more challenging, many of the athletes had not come to the Warrior Games expecting to compete in either event. But they answered the call of duty when the team coach Mark Heniser said the Navy/Coast Guard team needed more athletes to field both teams. And answer they did, without thought about their experience or skill level, they came together to represent the Navy/Coast Guard team and their respective services.
They couldn’t have asked for a better indoctrination into either sport. During their wheelchair basketball introduction Danny Fik, a four time alternate the Men’s Paralympic Basketball team and a member of the USA Junior World Cup team in 2005 where they beat Japan in the finals, reviewed the rules of the game, gave them tips on maneuvering the wheelchair, and demonstrated a few key moves.
During their immersion into sitting volleyball they practiced with the best – Paralympians Dan Regan and Kari Miller. Both athletes worked one-on-one with the athletes and with the entire group teaching techniques, running drills and getting giving them their first feel for what it would be like playing volleyball in the seated position. It is much harder than it looks.
It was when the Navy/Coast Guard team took to the court for their first sitting volleyball game that I witnessed them come together as a team. It didn’t happen the moment they hit the court, but grew out of spirit, determination, pride in their service and the chance to push themselves in a skill they had yet to use.
The team didn’t just evolve on the court, but in the stands as well. The few remaining members that were not competing, rallied around a group of athletes that everyone believed to be the under dogs. There was no doubt left to anyone’s imagination that the Navy and Coast Guard weren’t in the house. Their booming cheers, rallying chants and clanging yellow cow bells boosted the team on the court and the one in the stands.
I wish I could end with that the team swept the competition, but they fought did fight hard and made their competitors work for every point they earned. During the second day of competition the Navy/Coast Guard team won their first sitting volleyball game by beating an Army team in back-to-back matches. And, in wheelchair basketball they gave the US Air Force team a run for their money, losing the bronze medal in the final seconds by a mere 3 points.