COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Missy Franklin planned on celebrating her 18th birthday, and her last day of high school, with a getaway weekend to Breckenridge with her closest girlfriends. Those plans changed quickly when she was asked to help open the 2013 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte. It was an opportunity Franklin could not pass up.
“I can’t believe that I’m here,” said Franklin, who earned four gold medals and a bronze at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “I’m so excited. Even to be a part of it, let alone lighting the cauldron, means so much to me because these athletes and these heroes do so much for us and they inspire us every single day. To have something like this for them to come out here and really show what they've got, and for them to just go out and compete after everything that they've been through, I think is incredible. It’s just an honor to be here.”
Instead of going to Breckenridge, Colo., she spent Friday evening at a reception with Prince Harry, who joined the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to Franklin. At Saturday afternoon's Opening Ceremony, Prince Harry passed the Warrior Games torch to Franklin, who accompanied U.S. Navy Lt. Brad Snyder in lighting the cauldron to officially open the fourth annual Warrior Games in front of a crowd of 1,200, which included the 260 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans who will compete over the next five days.
Starting May 12, five U.S. Armed Forces teams (Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard and Special Operations) and the British Armed Forces team will face off in archery, cycling, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field and wheelchair basketball.
Lt. Snyder is a shining example of the impact the Warrior Games can have on a service member or veteran’s future. Eight months after losing his vision to an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan, Snyder competed in swimming and track and field events at the 2012 Warrior Games. Snyder said he “had fun” competing at the Games, but the affect it had on his family was much more important.
“It was very cathartic for my family,” Snyder said. “For me to be able to run with my brother as my guide and for my sister and mom to be able to tap for me in the pool and watch me succeed and watch me compete, and see that I’m no different than the person I was before. I’m exactly that same person. I just can’t see. We have to find a way to get around that 'disability,' but being able to compete was very important to us as a family.”
Snyder’s roller-coaster ride of a journey continued from there. Four months after the Warrior Games, he competed at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, where he earned two gold medals and a silver in swimming. His win in the 400-meter freestyle (S11) came on the exact one year anniversary of the IED explosion. Snyder was chosen by his peers to carry the U.S. flag in the Closing Ceremony in London and, later that month, presented President Barack Obama with a flag at Team USA’s White House visit.
His journey came full circle when he returned to the Warrior Games as this year’s honorary torchbearer.
“I think the next generation of amazing athletes are competing here at the Warrior Games and if they’re not, they’re going to go back to their communities and the story of the Warrior Games is going to catch on,” Snyder said. “It’s going to ignite the flame of a lot of other athletes who really haven’t had the idea or aren’t exposed to the idea of the Paralympics, whether it’s a young girl with cerebral palsy or a child born without a tibia so they don’t have a leg.
“They’re going to find the Paralympics and they’re going to say, ‘That’s what I’m going to do next year. Rio’s going to be my opportunity to shine.’ Hopefully my story reaches those people and ignites that flame.”
Snyder’s success story along with his winning attitude has inspired some of this year’s Warrior Games competitors, including U.S. Navy’s Angelo Anderson.
“I remember when I first met Brad he was wearing glasses, even though we all know he’s blind,” said Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Anderson. “I was like, ‘Brad why do you have glasses on?’ He was like, ‘It’s a disguise.’ That goes to show despite his injury he can still laugh about it, and to share a smile with him is very inspiring. Brad definitely gave me back my hope.”
In addition to the seven Paralympic-style sports contested at the Warrior Games, two athletes from each of the five U.S. Armed Forces branches will compete for the title of Ultimate Champion. The Ultimate Champion competition includes five events (cycling, shot put, 10-meter prone air rifle shooting, 50-meter freestyle swimming, 100-meter track sprint). One of the athletes chosen for the competition is the Air Force’s Captain Sarah Evans.
“I’m really honored that they chose me for Ultimate Champion,” Captain Evans said. “I wasn’t expecting it in my first year here, to have all the events. So I've been at home trying to get in there and work on the events that I’m not so familiar with, like shot put, which I have never done before.”
Special Operations Air Force Tech Sergeant Israel Del Toro has been helping Evans with her shot put, despite being on an opposing team.
“The camaraderie is there, especially being on the SOCOM team I have all the branches,” Sergeant Del Toro said. “Being an Air Force guy myself, I still maintain friendship with all these guys, from (Army Sergeant Ryan McIntosh) messing with me because he’s an Army guy and I’m an Air Force guy, to helping the captain over here with shooting and teaching her on her shot put. It’s all good fun. That camaraderie you’ll never find anywhere else. We’re here to help each other, to cheer for each other and just have fun. If I win a medal, it doesn’t matter. The friendship that I have here with these guys and my teammates it’s what matters for me.”
For more on the 2013 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte, visit teamusa.org/WarriorGames/.