CHICAGO, July 7, 2017 — Military members and veterans competing here this week at the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games are getting support from former athletes and service members who are serving as coaches and ambassadors.
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.
The ambassador program is new this year, with each service branch having two ambassadors. For Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger, this is her fourth Warrior Games and her first one as an ambassador for swimming and wheelchair racing.
“The intent is to have experienced individuals with [the] Warrior Games who’ve competed in the past, who understand what the games are about and how they function,” Elmlinger said.
Coaches and ambassadors also inspire and motivate the athletes, she said, and “to try to help them keep their heads up if they’re having a bad day.”
Elmlinger said she performed a similar role at the Army Trials and enjoys it because she can help the athletes.
“I can help them get ready. I can ease some of that stress,” Elmlinger said. “Like at the track the other day, I was like, ‘I can get you a new chair. Don’t worry about setting the compensator. I can help you out with that.’ It’s just another way to give back.”
Elmlinger said she continued offering mentorship to the athletes after the Army Trials before the Warrior Games via texts and emails.
Medically retired Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Sarah Rudder is an ambassador for track. She said the program not only helps the new athletes, but also shows them that after they’ve competed for two years, they could come back as ambassadors or as a coach.
“The Warrior Games is just a stepping stone and introducing us to adaptive sports,” Rudder said. “From here, there’re so many numerous opportunities. You have it in you to do it; just push yourself forward and move on.”
Rudder said it’s an honor and healing for her to be in this role. She worked with the United Kingdom’s medically retired Royal Air Force Flight Lt. Jannine Church to improve her start in running.
“We just had to work on her start and then once her start was down, she just flew,” Rudder said.
“I kept anticipating the start, so she said you’ve got to channel that explosion and don’t anticipate, react, so I had to find that stable position I could wait in and then I did explode,” Church said.
Church competes in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 800-meter races.
“I exploded so well that I crashed down the track,” Church said, noting she listened to Rudder’s advice “and transformed it into me and unleashed what I had. I felt absolutely empowered. I hadn’t run that fast since I was 15, and I’m 53.”
“At any competition I go to, any race I go to, I try to be an ambassador for adaptive sports to try to get the word out there advocate about the overall well-being these sports bring to people,” she said. Elmlinger goes to local high schools and helps wheelchair athletes who participate in track and field events.
Medically retired Army Capt. Frank Barroquiero competed in the Warrior Games from 2013 to 2015. He came back as the Army’s archery coach in 2016 and 2017. Like Elmlinger and Rudder, he’s earned many gold medals and is happy to share his knowledge with the next generation of competitors.
“I love the opportunity to share experiences and strategies with the next generation of folks,” he said. “I feel like I’m still getting to give back. It was nice getting to compete, and now I get to see it from the other side and see folks come back year after year and see where they are in their recovery. You can really see people growing and doing better, which is the part I cherish, seeing them at a better place in their life.”
Barroquiero had a chance to coach Australian athlete Army Sgt. Simon Horridge, who didn’t come to the games with a bow and ended up shooting at the archery compound competition with an Army bow, a U.S. Special Forces Command sight and United Kingdom arrows.
“He hadn’t shot a bow in 15 years and that was a recurve so he was ecstatic,” Barroquiero said. “We discovered that he’s a right-handed shooter, but left-eye dominant so we were hitting the wood … He was shooting really well.”
“I was probably nine or 10 the last time I shot so it’s been a big eye-opener. The learning curve has been quite steep but it’s been good fun,” Horridge said. “[Barroquiero’s] knowledge was great, getting to know the bow and him explaining it and how to do things was fantastic. To come over with no kit and no expertise and for them to give us that, it’s been really, really good. There’s nothing they won’t do for us. I’ve been having a lot of fun.”
Marine Corps Team Head Coach Bill Bryant uses his experience as a Marine staff sergeant and combat engineer to relate to his team. He helped to protect the USS Cole after it was attacked.
“Being a prior staff NCO, the Marines gravitate toward me and I work with them really well,” he said.
Bryant said he enjoys seeing the changes in his athletes over the years as they heal in their recovery and become stronger physically and mentally.
“It’s the most rewarding part of the job,” he said. “It’s very humbling and the most rewarding thing I’ve done in my career, working with these warriors over the years. My network continues to grow. I never lose contact with these Marines. My phone book just keeps growing. I’m constantly texting, reaching out to these Marines, all of these coaches. If we hear something’s not going well with a Marine, we bombard them and get them back on track as well as we can.”
Bryant, who has served now in the Marine Corps for 21 years, said the Warrior Games is his favorite time of year because it shows the Marines “this is what we’re trying to achieve, getting them to the Warrior Games.”
He added, “It’s not about winning the medals. It’s about the network you build here. Not just Marine Corps but across the services. The first year they’re competing, they’re kind of against each other but that second year you see them, they’re hugging each other and supporting each other. They’re joking and laughing. It’s so rewarding.”
(Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDoDNews)