A beautiful image at the U.S. Air Force Academy track in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Friday. Krissel Creager-Lumpkins with a radiant smile, green eyes shining in the Rocky Mountain sun, a 100m bronze medal hanging from her neck, and her bubbly 5-year-old daughter, Micahstia, fixed to her hip.
Life hasn’t looked this idyllic for Krissel in a very long time. In fact, she’s lived through a nightmare. At first glance, you’d never know. And when she talks, so confident and serene, its hard to imagine what she’s been through since that fateful summer day in Utah two years ago.
It was a combat training exercise. Just another step toward readiness for a deployment to Africa. Routine mountain navigation, lots of hiking, teams spread out all over the hillside, and then something went wrong.
As she tells me her story, she is stretching intermittently, staying limber for the 100m race ahead. Appropriately, she is not only competing in her first Warrior Games presented by Deloitte, but she is taking part in the Ultimate Champion competition, a Paralympic style pentathlon that will crown the most well-rounded athlete of all the service branches.
When she recalls what happened on that mountain in Utah, it sounds like a version of hell. In the midst of the training exercise, the hillside below caught fire. “I didn’t want to burn to death," she tells me. Forced to run uphill to avoid the flames, she encountered a deluge of water coming at her, meant to control the burn.
She was now being swept downhill by a torrent. This string of bizarre events was then complicated by a malfunction in her Kevlar helmet, which fell off as she careened downhill. Striking her head as she fell, she finally came to rest, motionless.
There is something indomitable about this woman’s spirit. It is hard to describe. It is pervasive at these Games, and is manifest not only in the athletic feats on display, but in the unquantifiable “it” that the competitors have found within themselves. She has “it”.
And she has needed it.
Since the accident, Krissel has endured paralysis, a brain aneurism and 10 surgeries. The aneurism is still there. “They couldn’t get it. They say it’s shaped like a Smurf’s nose, but it’s impossible to reach.” She points to where it resides, just above her right eye.
Perhaps worse than all of the episodes in the hospital, are the chronic symptoms of traumatic brain injury. They are lasting and inoperable as well. Common for people with a TBI are speech problems, depression, migraines, and anger.
“I was going to 22 doctors appointments a week.”
She felt defeated.
Then one day, she knew she needed to change something. The inspiration came from curly-haired little Micahstia, just four years old at the time.
“I’d just been laying in bed again, angry. And she came up to me with a towel and her toy doctor’s kit," Krissel recalled. “She laid the towel over my forehead, opened her kit and said, ‘I’m going to fix Mommy’s head now.’ I knew right then, I had to do something, for her sake.”
Part of that something was sports. Getting involved in athletics often has healing powers. Krissel saw a friend compete in the Warrior Games last year, and set her goal to be here this year. She’s been training for months to make it. Mission accomplished.
At the conclusion of the 2012 Games, Krissel Creager-Lumpkins had the third highest point total in the Ultimate Champion competition. Ultimate or not, this girl is a champion.