Wounded Warrior Games

May 15, 2010, 9:28 p.m. (ET)

This week the Olympic Training Center hosts some 200 disabled athletes from all the branches of the services.  I have been working with US Paralympic staff on the sitting volleyball competition, and this week, fter months of preparation, the gym roared to life with teams from Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy – including Coast Guard. The fitting theme is, “Once on the battlefield, now on the playing field...” Today, on Armed Forces Day in America, I would like to share some grow the game insights about this amazing group of athletes.


Many of you may not realize that the FIVB is not involved in the sititng game, it is the WOVD, the World Organization of Volleyball for the Disabled which oversees the programming as a member of the International Paralympic Committee (the IPC). USA Volleyball meanwhile gives with the help of US Paralympics, hundreds of thousands of dollars in support, and currently two full time staff members directing the sitting program from grassroots to international competition.  If you want to get involved, just contact me at john.kessel@usav.org, as we would love to have more people helping grow the sport, for the good of all.


I have been doing Paralympic sport for over 15 years. I produced the sitting volleyball venue in the 96 Atlanta Paralympics, having the crowd, and “Blaze” the rising phoenix mascot of those games, participate in between matches, in serving and skill contests. I have been to countless hospitals and military bases, urging and showing anyone willing to give the game a shot, to include it in their programming offerings for the disabled. What happens in that first 15 minutes when someone does sitting volleyball remains one of the best examples of the magic and joyful mystery of play.  Physical therapists see their charges sitting, sliding, smiling, focused and intense – and then laughing hard, as they discover the sitting version of our sport, and say…”That is the first time I have seen him laugh like that since I have been working with him…”


I think it is because everyone knows the sport of volleyball, but they do not realize, until they DO it, how the sitting game is a great leveler. The shorter court and net means the ball is on you in an instant, and you have to volley that dang ball up somehow. You discover that, if you have legs, you can kick up a ball to save it, but can’t use those legs too much to move to the right spot – that now becomes your arms and hands’ job.  This also makes the games more competitive, and these Warrior Games showed that.


While I clearly am biased, the sitting volleyball venue was THE place to be each day, with close contests and amazingly spirited inter-service rivalry One of the teams that did not make the medal round, lost their first set 7-25, only to keep the crowd thrilled in the second set, losing 28-30 to the eventual gold medal Marine team.  The crowds were so loud the referee corps could not hear the coaches or scorekeepers from just a few feet away. Each service, in the lead or not, yelled as loud as possible to out cheer their opponent.  Many sponsors and military and hospital staffs were seeing the game played for the first time, and for these key groups, I think they see why the game is such a great Paralympic sport.

This spirit played out to the maximum at the gold medal match. The Marines came in confident and not having lost a set, the byproduct of a good long training camp that melded them into a solid team. Kari Miller and the Army Three coach asked if I could coach them the morning of the medal round. When a silver medal winning Paralympian and a veteran along with the coach of a Wounded Warrior team asks for help, you clear your schedule and give it.  Andy Pai from CAP, a former Marine, and I were honored to do so.  What can you accomplish in a couple of hours? I thought I would share my practice objectives here, in case anyone else finds themselves in the same condensed coaching situation….

1.    Serve in and free ball, to areas one and two – Setters, lesser experienced as this group is, simply do not set as effectively with balls coming from court areas one and two – as all are trained with the traditional GPS located ball cart angle at zone five.

2.    Pass up Dig up - $5 Wendy’s gift certificate for anyone digging or passing a ball “too high” and hitting the ceiling in either gym.

3.    Everybody set off and inside – while a perfect set (at the sideline/just off the net) might see a kill level of near 60%, a set that is inside and off the net is killed at the same percentage level. However a ball set too tight and past the antenna is killed at a rate below 20%

4.    Spike over, not into the net – Not only are we wanting to put the pressure on our opponent to think and play a ball by making sure it gets over the net, the “heaven to hell” ratio of error space is far bigger in sitting –Hell is the net, just a 1.15m barrier, and Heaven, the gap to hit any ball over when you are lost and confused as a new player on the court – is the remaining 7-11 meters from the top of the net to the ceiling. Aim for heaven when you are lost.

So those points made, we triple peppered, to start the “dig up not back to the opponent” habit, and then served, then did zone four and two pass-set-spiking with James Stuck of the US National Team and a teammate putting up the block to hit around. Serve some more – flat targets of Post it easel board 20x30 in sheets in both zone two corners. Then Army 3 played three USA national team members, Kari Miller included,  who did not rotate, as their coach did three-ball wash points to get as many reps as possible in our short time together.  It was an intense and spirited training, and then we headed back to the office.


One of the things to ask each junior, youth, and adult program reading this to consider is to at least play some sitting volleyball each season (lesson plans and setup ideas are in the new MiniVolley book, which you can download by CLICKING HERE and to even reach out to all disabled programs in your area to play and train sitting volleyball. In Holland, some 3,500 people are members of their sitting volleyball program, but 3,000 of them are able bodied athletes who simply prefer the sitting option of the game, with no jumping and fast rallies.  Consider playing family sitting volleyball some evenings, it will help your players overhead passing and floor defense, and bond your team in new ways.


Medal round day found me announcing one of the semifinals while still taking action photos for future use, and to just capture the wonderful spirit and intensity of every wounded warrior, men and women, competing. Any Pai refereed all three days, and covered as Tech Director the day I flew to University of Central Oklahoma to represent USAV in the World Organization of Volleyball for the Disabled technical inspection for this July’s World Championships of Sitting Volleyball. Come on down an join 40 teams from around the world (24 men’s team and some 13 women’s teams at this time) and see who gains the first three spots for the London Paralympics for both genders. Margie Mara did a marvelous job leading the scorekeepers, which included Matt, son of USAV staffer Kirstin Fracassiini.  My intern Keven Johns did a great job as the other first referee and  lots of USAV staff showed up for the medal round just to support the athletes. Brig. Gen. Gary H. Cheek was questioned about what he’s asking of each of the soldiers competing at the 2010 Warrior Games. His reply was


“The No. 1 thing I asked all of them to do was to take this flame, this Olympic torch, this spirit it has brought into them … back to their comrades who are also recovering and moving forward and light that spark in them -- get their comrades back into life and into physical activity, and other things as well.  [The] real purpose of these games is to have a greater impact in the programs we’re running across all the military services in the future.”


For me, one of the biggest highlights was seeing Chuck again, the above the knee double amputee who is also partially deaf and completely blind. He was my designated server who missed just one serve last summer (see my Paralympic Sports Club Blog by clicking here).   Chuck took 8th in his swimming race here, but was the heart and soul of the Marines, sitting in his wheelchair next to the bench and getting told what was happening point by point. Army 3 seemed to have learned something in the morning and beating a tough Air Force team in three to make the gold medal match, then they won the second game in the gold medal match, giving the Marines their first set loss of the games.  They were tied 8-8 and then a fellow Marine gave the Semper Fi flag to Chuck in his wheelchair and raced around the gym. Somehow, Chuck’s roar could be heard above everyone else’s voice, and the Marines went on a 7- 1 to victory. I choke up just writing about the service of that young man and his comrades, in every branch.


Forty-three million Americans have served in our Armed Forces over time. Some 650,000 have given the ultimate sacrifice of their lives. These wounded warriors each have given so much as well, their families and  fellow servicemen included. The  most powerful moment for me came just before Diane French, 1980 women’s team Olympian hung medals. The Marine team was engulfed by their supporters and fellow Marines, their chant for their service branch filling the gym…then in a heartbeat, the chant changed to U-S-A, U-S-A!! and the whole gym joined in It is a moment I will never forget, for this is not only about being your best, but is about everyone pitching in together to make Americans the best we can be. together.    Thank you all who serve and have served, from all of us at USA Volleyball.