Adaptive sports help heal bodies, minds

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Wounded warrior athletes will be competing in the third annual Warrior Games from April 30 to May 5 in Colorado. Adaptive sports and athletic reconditioning is a key component of recovery for many wounded, ill and injured Service members.

A Service member’s recovery from a wound, illness or injury can be a long journey and encompasses everything from physical and mental health to emotional and spiritual well-being. For many wounded warriors, the hardest part of this process is accepting their “new normal” and coming to terms with the fact that their lives have been changed forever. But, through adaptive sports many wounded warriors discover a new life they may never have imagined.

Service members who participate in adaptive sports, especially through training camps and other opportunities provided by the Military Services, gain a new sense of confidence as well as physical and emotional strength, said Tom Hopkins, contract and program manager for the Marine Corps’ Warrior Athlete Reconditioning Program, which is part of the Wounded Warrior Regiment.

“There’s a massive transformation by the end of those camps,” Tom said. “And you see them a couple months later and their personalities have changed. They’re realizing that not only can they do this thing, they can be good at it.”

This kind of participation in adaptive sports, athletic reconditioning and other recreational activities, whether competitive or non-competitive, can be a key component of any wounded, ill or injured Service member’s physical recovery. Physical benefits include lower blood pressure, weight management and overall enhancement of the rehabilitative process. Positive physical activity can also mitigate negative behaviors such as poor dietary habits, excessive alcohol consumption or drug use and abuse.

Participation in adaptive sports, particularly through the programs offered by each of the Military Services as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs, also prepares warrior athletes for competitive events such as the Warrior Games, which will be held April 30 through May 5, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Many recovering Service members who participate in adaptive sports and athletic reconditioning also enjoy mental and emotional benefits from increased physical activity. Getting Service members out and around their peers in a competitive but light-hearted environment can work wonders, Tom said. The Marine Corps also pairs wounded warrior athletes with mentors, usually older veterans who have already triumphed over same experiences wounded warriors are currently going through.

That is not to say that the process is easy, Tom added, or quick. Luckily, adaptive sports opportunities continue even when wounded warriors transition to veteran status. The VA’s Adaptive Sports Program works with VA staff, the U.S. Paralympics and community-based adaptive sports programs across the country to encourage disabled veterans to redefine themselves by participating and/or competing in adaptive sports. Some veterans training in their respective sports are also provided a monthly assistance allowance by the VA. To qualify for the monthly allowance, a veteran must have a service-related or non-service-related disability and must meet the qualifying military standard for a particular sport. In addition, the VA program provides grants to U.S. Paralympics member organizations, Paralympic Sports Clubs and veteran and military organizations nationwide to enhance and expand local community-based adaptive sports programs.

The goal of any adaptive sports program is to show wounded warrior athletes that they are capable of more than they think. There is no limit to the adaptations that can be made to any sort of sporting equipment, including bicycles, rifles and archery bows, Tom said, and many athletes are achieving things they wouldn’t have considered even before they were wounded, injured or fell ill.

“If the desire is there, there is always an engineer or someone out there who can fashion the apparatus to meet the requirement,” Tom said. Some adaptations include a shooting system for visually impaired athletes that beeps when the shooter is within target range, as well as bikes that can be fitted for single amputees, double amputees, triple amputees and quadriplegics.

All these adaptations help wounded warriors perform better as athletes, but the lessons they are learning transcend the playing field.

“They’re being asked to do more and not just go through the motions but to be good, to push through to the next level. And they go willingly,” Tom said. “So, are there life lessons? Absolutely. There are going to be a lot of challenges out there that aren’t on the track or in the pool. It’s the simple things like, How do I get myself to the grocery store and do the things that are part of my everyday life? You draw on these experiences where you’ve had success and use those to quiet the voices of doubt.”


This month we will focus on the upcoming Warrior Games, including profiles of athletes and coaches from each of the seven events. Stay tuned!