On July 6, 2011, while on a foot patrol in Kajaki, a village in southern Afghanistan, Marine Corps Sgt. Mike Nicholson was hit with a 40-pound roadside bomb. The blast took off his right leg at the hip, his left leg through the knee and his left arm below the elbow. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress.
But here at the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games, the medically retired former artilleryman of five years, doesn’t focus on the 33 surgeries he underwent, but on his recovery.
Nicholson said joining the Marine Corps was appropriate for him because the military was in his blood.
“My whole family’s military,” Nicholson said. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was a machine gunner in World War II during the Battle of the Bulge in the Army. My great-grandfather on my dad’s side was a machine gun lieutenant in the Army for World War I. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Navy submariner, so he captained a submarine. My dad was Navy intelligence; my uncle was Navy ordinance on an aircraft carrier in Vietnam, so it’s in the blood.”
Nicholson said his wife, Katie, who he’s been married to for a year and four months, pushed him to get involved with adaptive sports. They just had a baby boy, Sawyer and have a daughter, Callie, 12.
“She started getting me out and being more active,” he said. “She took me and my family to the Invictus Games in Orlando, and I got tapped into the program with the Wounded Warrior Regiment, and I’ve been coming out to the camps. There were definitely the dark days with recovery, just kind of holed up in a room, not really wanting to be around anybody, angry at the world but then you get out.”
He said one of the challenges was not used to being a civilian anymore after being in the military. “But if you’ve you got a really good support system and a will to wake up in the morning and take care of the day, then you’ll be all right. It takes a little bit of everything. It’s definitely people all around you, organizations around you, military, everybody,” Nicholson said. “Adaptive sports definitely helped me pull out of it. My wife said the other day that I wake up with a smile on my face every day now; that’s a pretty big accomplishment for somebody in my particular position.”
Nicholson said his daughter is active in sports such as volleyball and soccer and helps keep him active. “She plays sports for her school so it’s really good to get out and play with her and be active,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to help her grow and watch her grow in her own sporting world because that’s what I did growing up. Being able to watch her do the same thing, it’s a good reason to get up in the morning.”
In high school, Nicholson said he excelled in soccer and golf, but would play volleyball, basketball and any other sport he could. Here at the warrior games, he competed in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter racing chair for track, and will compete in the 50-yard freestyle, 50-yard backstroke, 50-yard breaststroke, 100-yard freestyle and a relay event in swimming. He earned a gold medal in the 200-meter and a silver medal in the 100-meter track events.
Nicholson said his favorite sport is swimming, and that his daughter swims like a fish and races him. “She loves to swim. She’s beat me a few times. We played tag a few times in the Gulf of Mexico. She’s fast; I couldn’t catch her,” he said laughing. “She’s really fast.”
He said his family is his main motivation as he competes this week in the Warrior Games. “Those three are my main motivation in the world,” he said. “They’re who I get up for. I just want to make them proud. I want to show my daughter it doesn’t matter how hard you get knocked down, you can always get back up. There’s always something you can do. We don’t like to use the word can’t in our house.”
He said he’s also happy his family is here to see him compete because his wife is the one who helped get him in the gym and push him out of that dark place in his recovery. “I didn’t even want to go to the gym. She started pushing me to go out and be comfortable out in public during the daytime. It was a big step for me to be able to go out with the civilians and act fine and not worry about how I look or what things are going to happy. She’s the main reason I compete. I want to show her that it wasn’t for nothing,” he said.
About 265 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command, United Kingdom and the Australian Defense Force are competing in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.
By Shannon Collins