For Warrior Games competitors, the best memory of the event usually isn't about them. Invariably it's a moment of courage or sportsmanship from another Wounded Warrior, something that took their breath away or brought them to tears.
Raina Hockenberry, a Navy master chief petty officer wounded in Afghanistan, won eight gold medals and set four Games records in swimming at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. But she left in awe of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Capt. James Howard and his unforgettable effort at the Academy Natatorium.
Howard, a quadriplegic, swam the 50-meter freestyle on his back while competitors from all branches rooted him on, some even jumping into the water to do it. A person with full function could swim that distance in 35 to 40 seconds; it took Howard more than 4 1/2 minutes. With a push from social media, his swim made SportsCenter's Top 10 Plays of the Day.
"The whole crowd was on its feet cheering on this captain," Hockenberry said. "That's what the military is all about. We come together for one mission, and we make sure that mission gets done. We brought that captain back to the end of the pool."
"I no longer think the term 'Wounded Warrior' is a stigma. It's a badge of honor. I'm not embarrassed or afraid, nor do I shy away from being a part of this group. I'm honored to be a part of this group." Raina Hockenberry, Warrior Games competitor
Christina Truesdale, a just-retired Army major dealing with chronic back pain and neurological issues, won an upright cycling bronze medal and just missed another. But she found herself moved by cyclists with limited or no leg function.
"When you see people out there on handcycles, they're the most inspiring, because those guys have to use their arms to pedal," Truesdale said. "I can barely do it with my legs. It was just neat to see all the different adaptations, people out there cycling with prosthetics. Just amazing, amazing stuff."
The annual Warrior Games bring together military men and women with injuries (not all combat-related), illnesses or psychological issues. Many are dealing with what Hockenberry calls "invisible wounds" -- post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and internal ailments. Competitors are grouped by the level of physical or neurological limitation.
Whether competitor or spectator, it's hard to leave the Warrior Games without witnessing something extraordinary. Hockenberry, who also competed in 2017, and Truesdale, a first-timer, embraced the camaraderie and fellowship of competitors united in their perseverance to overcome obstacles.
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Hockenberry, a former triathlete, was shot five times in an ambush in Afghanistan. She has limited strength in her lower right leg, where two bullets shattered her tibia, and her left arm. In the pool, she can only kick with one leg and pull with one arm. In the 100-meter freestyle, she flubbed her flip turn off the pool wall and needed all her strength to touch the wall first.
"I'm not going to lie -- I had a moment of panic when I felt my foot slip on the wall," she said. "My head popped up, I heard the crowd, and I said, 'Keep going. You just keep going.' I don't know if I could have done it [without the crowd]. They kept me going."
Hockenberry added two golds in rowing and two more on the bike -- the road race and time trial. More than her own victories, she relished a open time trial gold by Navy teammate Abbie Johnson, a retired musician dealing with PTSD.
"One of our females was very anxious, almost in tears because of the crowd," Hockenberry said of Johnson. "As soon as the whistle went, she took off. She flew forward. All of a sudden it was just her and the bike. She got to forget everything. I think that's a lot of what this is about -- forgetting we have something we're fighting every day. We just get in the moment and forget about everything and just perform, like we're built to do."
Truesdale expected more than her one medal; she finished fourth in the upright cycling time trial, seventh in air pistol and 11th in prone air rifle. She, too, was a triathlete before undergoing two back surgeries and being declared 100 percent disabled by the Army Medical Board. Truesdale earned her bronze by barely edging Australia's Emilea Mysko in the road race. Both crossed the finish line exhausted in 33 minutes, 55 seconds.
"It was a pretty brutal race, and that bronze was the hardest and proudest medal I've ever received," she said. "There was a photo review, it was so close. I literally won by a tire. I had blood coming out of my mouth, and my Aussie friend collapsed. It was amazing. It was a lot of fun."
In four months, Hockenberry and Truesdale will represent their service branches at the Invictus Games, the British version of the Warrior Games, in Sydney, Australia. Both relish the opportunity to be part of something bigger than themselves, to again show that injured soldiers can contribute and find worth in competition.
"I no longer think the term 'Wounded Warrior' is a stigma," Hockenberry said. "It's a badge of honor. I'm not embarrassed or afraid, nor do I shy away from being a part of this group. I'm honored to be a part of this group.
"It's a badge of honor not because I was injured, but because I'm part of a group of people that has fought back, overcome odds that other people may not have thought they could. To know that these people think I'm one of them is just amazing."