Seeking title of Ultimate Champion
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Sarah Evans is not unfamiliar with ultimate challenges.
She's been facing them every day for the past year.
A little more than a year ago, while deployed in Afghanistan, Air Force Captain Sarah Evans began to feel fatigued and notice some pain in her left hip. It was enough to warrant a visit to the hospital at Bagram Air Base to get it checked out. She was flown to Germany.
An MRI found a large mass, and Evans was immediately transferred to a hospital in San Antonio, Texas, where a biopsy confirmed it was bone cancer. Originally, she was "just" to have a total hip and pelvic replacement on her left side. But a couple of weeks later, doctors determined there were more cancer cells and they needed to remove her left leg.
"On April 24, 2012, I underwent a hemipelvectomy, which basically means I’m missing half of my pelvis and my entire left leg," Evans said.
It was an extreme procedure, and one of the rarest of lower-extremity amputations. But Evans is confident it was the right choice.
“They did that to have a better chance of stopping the bone cancer right there,” she said. “I’ve had clean scans for a year now, so it looks good. It looks like we got it!”
Evans then began the long road of rehabilitation. Not one for slowing down, she began hand cycling.
She got involved with an organization in San Antonio called Operation Comfort, and began cycling on the hand bike just three weeks following her surgery.
“I was still doing chemotherapy at the time, but it was a great way for me to get outside, get fresh air and get a cardio workout at the same time, which was something I hadn’t been able to do in a really long time,” Evans said.
Her competitive nature came through during rehabilitation, and Evans decided she wanted to compete in the 2013 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte in Colorado Springs, Colo. There are 260 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans participating in the Warrior Games, now in its fourth year. This year marks Evans’ first trip to the Warrior Games.
But she didn’t stop there. She set her sights on the Ultimate Champion event.
In the pentathlon-style Ultimate Champion event, each service branch (Army, Marines, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force and Special Operations) is allotted two slots in the competition. Men and women compete for same trophy.
The Ultimate Champion winner is the individual at the end of the competition who has earned the most points in the following disciplines: cycling, field event (shot put), shooting (10m prone air rifle), swimming (50m freestyle) and track (100m sprint).
Evans finished seventh in the combined hand cycle and recumbent cycle event on Sunday, and tied for ninth in the shooting competition today.
Shooting sports aren't new to Evans, who participated in marksmanship matches for approximately a year while attending the Citadel military college in South Carolina.
"Shooting is actually the only sport that I’m competing in this week that I've competed in before," Evans said. "I wasn’t great at it in college, or anything, but I really enjoyed it."
But Evans had to re-learn how to shoot, as the competition at the Warrior Games requires her to shoot from a modified prone position, in which the weapon is placed on a table as a rest.
"I haven't been shooting this way for very long. The elbow placement on the table, having the table at the right angle, those are all brand new things that I had to learn. The fundamentals like breathing, trigger squeeze and follow-through are all the same."
In January, Evans visited Colorado for the Air Force Selection Camp and, for the first time, tried shooting from the modified prone position.
"I've never had to wear a sling before when shooting," she said. "It created a lot of new muscle fatigue that I’m just not used to."
When asked about shooting from the standing position, Evans believes she still has some challenges ahead.
"I've tried shooting from the standing position, wearing my prosthesis," Evans said. "I think it’s just a little too wiggly. I feel like I should be better at shooting from the modified prone position because it’s definitely more stable, but it’s truly not any easier, it’s just different. I’m just not that confident in the standing position right now."
Evans’ coach, Lt. Col. Doug Clark, would disagree.
"She's great at the standing event," Clark said. "She's probably one of my best shooters. She was wearing the prosthetic leg back in January at the camp, and was hitting those targets hard."
Following the shooting event today, Evans will move on to her next phase in her quest to be crowned the Ultimate Champion: the women’s field standing shot put and the women’s 100 track event.
Her competition will wrap up Thursday with the 50 freestyle swimming event.
"The biggest challenge I face right now in the pool is the altitude," Evans said. "Sometimes I get to the end of a couple of laps and I seem to be gasping for air. That’s where I feel it the most."
As with most of the competitors at the event, Evans came with her own cheering section.
"Most people have a family member or two," Evans said. "I came with a whole entourage!"
Evans’ biggest supporter might just be her husband, Joe Evans, an Air Force helicopter pilot who is stationed at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio.
"I support Sarah as much as I can and try to do everything she does," Joe said. "We ride bikes together a lot, but I can’t keep up with her on a hand bike. I have to ride a regular bike. There’s no way I could keep up with her!"
In addition to her husband, Evans’ traveling fan club includes her mother and stepfather, who flew in from northern Florida, her mother and father-in-law who traveled from Albuquerque, N.M, and her sister- and brother-in-law who live in Colorado Springs.
“I have quite a lot of family,” Evans said. “I’m very blessed to have them all here supporting me.”
Not content to rest on her laurels, Evans already has plans following the conclusion of the Warrior Games.
"In a few weeks, I’m going over to Europe to participate in a fundraiser with some other Wounded Warriors for a rehabilitation hospital in England,” she said.”It’s a 350-mile bike ride from Paris to London over the course of seven days. I’m really excited to go over there and cycle across Paris. It’s going to be so cool!"
Evans’ coach isn't surprised by her enthusiasm.
“It’s a real eye opener to come to this competition. The athletes are amazing and inspirational,” Clark said. “The truth is, we've all chewed the same dirt but they ended up giving a piece of themselves in the process.”
The camaraderie of those who have served and now participate in this event seems to make the experience of the Warrior Games even more special.
"In the end, no matter what," Clark said, "we’re all on the same team."
For more on the 2013 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte, visit teamusa.org/warriorgames/.