Today we remember

By U.S. Paralympics | Sept. 11, 2015, 6:34 p.m. (ET)


A first-person reflection by U.S. Paralympics communications intern Annemarie Blanco

On this day, America still pains for the thousands of lives lost fourteen years ago. But, on this day, September 11, 2015, I was lucky enough to spend it with a handful of veterans that showed me the meaning of true patriotism.

As I shadowed a group of men and women who had joined together for Semper Fi’s three day camp, it became clear to me that today, of all days, would never be forgotten and that this was the perfect place for them to be. Each with their own story, struggle and reason for being here – this is one experience that will forever leave a lasting memory on my mind.

Sport is a medium like no other; it’s given veterans a chance to rehabilitate from their war-induced injuries while also providing a sense of purpose. No matter how difficult it may be or how long it may take, “can’t” is not a word that will be settled for. 

A joint collaboration between the Team Semper Fi Fund and Team America’s Fund, the Semper Fi Fund United States Olympic Committee Military Program Multi-Sport Endurance Camp looks to do just that -- remove doubt and replace it with hope. In its inaugural camp, 25 service members came together at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center for the chance to learn from top-tier coaches and test their athletic abilities in a variety of different areas including cycling, track and field, triathlon, strength and conditioning and biathlon.

After the first day of training on the track and in the weight room, with the help of former Seattle Seahawk Dave Vobora , the second session took place in Colorado Springs’ Memorial Park, a fitting background on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

The day started off with cycling, where the overcast weather was no match to the group of heroes returning to a bike, for many the first time since their injury. With a collection of road and handcycles, the group spent the better half of the morning learning the fundamentals of cycling alongside Parapan American bronze medal Justin Widhalm before hitting the pool for an afternoon swim.

“The coolest part about the camp is being here with other veterans and being able to see them push themselves which in return pushes you to be better,” said Air Force veteran Christopher Wolff.

For Wolff, the weekend has given him a chance to do and try things he never thought possible. After countless months under fire in Afghanistan, Wolff returned to the reintegration line for a flu shot that left him paralyzed from the neck down nineteen days later.

“I lay in a hospital bed for probably about two and a half years without being able to move any part of my body except for my neck as life-support was keeping me alive,” Wolff said. “I was told I would never breathe, eat, walk or do anything on my own again. Those words hit me hard and I knew what the doctor was saying wasn’t going to be true and that I had to prove it to not only to myself that he was wrong, but also to him.”

Seven years later, Wolff has progressed enough to the point that he is able to walk alone with forearm crutches. And in the last two days he’s overcome obstacles that he never expected to.

“Dave Vobora was able to show me and let me prove to myself that I can do more even though I am partially paralyzed from the waist down,” Wolff explained. “I was able to actually stand up from ground with a little bit of assistance from him, and I didn’t think I would ever be able to do it.”

Nine year Army veteran Shakira Blockett only took to sports after her military career came to a halt. Suffering from injury hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her dreams, but rather it has given her a reason to build new ones.

“I wasn’t really into sports into my adult life but once you get injured, get out of the military and hear about how good adaptive sports are, I finally agreed,” Blockett said. “This has been a very surreal moment being here and being able to get the training that we’re getting. I’m a triathlete in training, new to the sport, but I have a lightning for it. Every little thing that I’ve learned today, from running to cycling, has been helpful.”

While some are looking to extend their abilities to the Paralympic level and others are using it as a way to cope with their injuries, it’s clear that this camp, these people and this day were well worth the encounter.

“Adaptive sports have redefined who I am and showed me that I can be somebody else if I put my focus and drive towards it, not only for me, but helping other veterans along the way,” said Wolff.

“Drive and determination will put you wherever you want to be. The people around you help you realize that your accomplishments, even if you see them as small and minute, are an inspiration. You’re the only one that holds yourself back. We go through pains and frustrations in life but to break through those and let yourself know that the only excuse is you.”

 For more information on Team Semper Fi, visit semperfifund.org/