COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Walking into Clune Arena at the U.S. Air Force Academy on Wednesday night, the atmosphere is one of an NCAA Final Four playoff tournament game.
The entryway is jammed with parents, friends and fans decked out in team gear, sporting giant foam fingers and clanging cow bells. Groups of men are playing a game of musical one-upmanship, singing the Navy (or Marines) fight song, which echoes quite loudly throughout the cavernous hall.
A woman in a pirate costume, complete with hook, feathered cap and a plastic parrot on her shoulder runs by yelling “Go Joe! Go Navy!” while sounding an air-horn.
This, however, is no collegiate championship title game. This is the bronze medal match in wheelchair basketball at the 2013 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte.
Before a crowd of a few hundred spectators, the Marines and the Navy/Coast Guard battled for a bronze medal.
The Marines won by a score of 49 to 18, and advanced to the gold medal round against Army.
The night was bittersweet for retired Master at Arms Petty Officer 3rd Class Nathan DeWalt, who is one of four Team Captains for the Navy/Coast Guard team, and participating in his final Warrior Games.
“This game was a win-win situation for us,” DeWalt said. “We may have lost the game, but we’re still bronze medalists, and that’s amazing. As a team, we’re walking away with our heads held high.”
DeWalt enlisted in the Navy following graduation from high school and, after completing his training, was stationed at the Naval Weapons Station in Earle, N.J.
On July 11, 2008, DeWalt was struck by a vehicle while riding his motorcycle. The accident severed his spinal cord and rendered him paralyzed from the chest down. When he regained consciousness at the Jersey Shore Medical Center two and a half weeks later, he immediately came to terms with his injury.
“Something inside me said ‘It’s not over’,” DeWalt said. “That’s when I decided to pick myself up, kick it into gear, and move on with my life. I never really looked back.”
At that point, DeWalt decided that there would be no obstacles to his complete rehabilitation.
“There was never a day when I cried, I was never depressed,” he said. “I just decided I was going to push around in my chair, just like I could walk.”
After three months of intensive in-patient rehabilitation, DeWalt was discharged from the hospital. It was at this point, he says, he decided to take up sports.
The next logical step was competing in the Warrior Games.
“The Warrior Games opened my eyes to what adaptive sports can be. Without these Games, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. This event has presented me with so many opportunities.”
In addition to the wheelchair basketball competition, DeWalt also participated in the shooting competition, where he finished seventh overall in the 10 meter air rifle (prone).
“In my eyes, that’s pretty exceptional,” he said, “considering I just picked up the air rifle for the first time last week!”
DeWalt, who enjoys the camaraderie of the wheelchair basketball team, isn’t surprised that they were able to secure a bronze medal at this year’s event.
“About 75 percent of our team is made up of players who have participated in the Warrior Games in the past,” DeWalt said. “We have some really good shooters, and I think we’re a pretty well rounded team.”
DeWalt says the team sports can be quite challenging, as the members are only able to practice together at a handful of training camps throughout the year. In addition, because the team is comprised of both active duty and retired service members who are located throughout the U.S., it is difficult to schedule the training camps to accommodate everyone’s schedule.
“Even though we have these challenges,” he said, “the camaraderie this team has is amazing. The bottom line is, after the closing ceremonies, we’re going to leave here as a family, and you really can’t ask for much more than that.”
DeWalt has been competing in the Warrior Games since its inaugural year. He qualified last year for the 2012 Paratriathlon World Championships which, he says, will preclude him from participating in future Warrior Games.
This does not mean that DeWalt will be slowing down, however. His future plans include participating in the Paratriathlon National Championships later this month in Austin, Texas, with the goal of qualifying for 2013 ITU Paratriathlon World Championships in London.
DeWalt has more than just sporting competitions in his future. In September, he will wed fiancée Erica Cepko at a destination wedding in Bora Bora.
“This is her (Cepko’s) first experience in the wounded warrior setting,” DeWalt said. “It’s made a huge impact on her, and it sure means a lot to me for her to be here, supporting me.”
In addition to the fans, friends and family filling the stands at tonight’s game, additional support for the warriors came in the form of Heisman Trophy winner – and bobsled Olympian – Herschel Walker.
Walker, who congratulated the Navy/Coast Guard team on their bronze-medal win, and thanked the members for their service to our country, said he once contemplated joining the military.
“To tell you guys the truth, I flipped a coin,” Walker said. “I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to go to college and play football, or join the military, so I just flipped a coin. That’s how I made the decision.”
“Guess you made the right one!” a team member laughingly told the three-time All-American running back.
As for DeWalt, he says he feels like he made the right decision as well.
“I started considering myself an athlete at my very first Warrior Games,” DeWalt said. “Truthfully, I couldn’t be more thankful for the way my life has turned out. Just being alive is such a blessing.”
Even though his participation in his final Warrior Games has come to an end, DeWalt is walking away with a smile on his face.
“I’m leaving the Warrior Games with one last medal,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more than that.”
For more from the 2013 Warrior Games presented by Deloitte, visit teamusa.org/warriorgames/.