On a clear Colorado day, the best Army wounded warrior athletes gathered for the first of many track and field practices for the Third Annual Warrior Games hosted by the U.S. Olympic Committee and held in late April to early May in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Special Operations Command, competed for the gold in track and field, shooting, swimming, cycling, archery, wheel chair basketball and sitting volleyball.
Similar to the Paralympics Games, the event showcases the high level of fitness and dedication of these athletes.
The Army team was selected as a result of several sports clinics that showcased individual skill, ability and the heart of the competitors.
The final 50 athletes and their coaches represent the best all-around candidates from across the country and reflect the resilience, courage and valor of soldiers.
Lt. Col. Sue Bozgoz, USA, Ret., Army track coach, started running at the age of 12.
Her passion for running translated into a scholarship to Auburn University. She continued to run after joining the Army, participating in more than 53 marathons during her 20-year career.
Since retiring in 2006, she has mentored world-class runners and encouraged these athletes to run on behalf of soldiers killed in combat, or to bring attention to worthy military causes.
Bozgoz said the Warrior Games and similar events are extremely important to the recovery of these athletes.
"It gives them confidence and focus. It gives them something to brag about. Everyone is proud of them, and they know it," she said.
Adding, "Everybody wants to be the one to win a gold, and we have a strong, strong possibility of winning."
Leading up to the games, Bozgoz invited the world-class runners she works with to meet the soldiers. These runners helped the Army athletes to build their confidence and iron out kinks in their form.
Bozgoz explained that incorrect form results in wasted energy and can make the difference when seconds determine a winner.
Additionally, she coached soldiers on breathing techniques, stretching techniques and choosing the proper running equipment.
Many athletes sought additional training at local high schools and colleges in preparation for the games and kept in contact with other Warrior Games athletes for motivation.
Teamwork is a pivotal element of both the competition and the Army experience.
For retired Sgt. Sean Hook, an Altoona, Pa., native, the opportunity to mentor and interact with soldiers was his main reason for participating in the games.
"Working with soldiers is what I miss most about being in the military. I don’t think I even realized how much I missed it until I came here," Hook said, who recently was medically retired.
Hook served five years in the active duty Army and had a seven-year break in service until he found out his local National Guard unit, the 56th Stryker Brigade, was deploying to Iraq.
He said he felt compelled to do his duty and deploy. After getting his wife to agree, he deployed with the unit.
During a patrol in the city of Abu Ghraib, Hook’s unit encountered a vehicle borne improvised explosive device, which left him with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and severe damage to his shoulder.
Hook did not realize the full extent of his injuries until after his deployment. The TBI resulted in balance and speech difficulties and the injury to his shoulder included a rotator cuff tear, a tear in the labrum shoulder joint, and damage to the ligaments that held his bicep in place.
He heard about the Warrior Games in December 2011 and quickly decided it was something he wanted to pursue.
Hook took up the sports of discus and shot put and qualified to make the team. He said it helped change the focus of his life.
"It gave me my focus, drive and determination back. I was just going through the motions of life," Hook said. "Now I am more goal-oriented. It really helped."
Hook is looking forward to the competition, and he will have some very special fans in attendance: his wife and three kids.
His son is following in his footsteps and for his age group, throws at an advanced level. Hook credits the sport with helping bring him back together with his son.
For soldiers and veterans interested in participating in the Warrior Games or similar events, Bozgoz encourages them to just go for it.
"You can do anything. The only thing that holds you back from accomplishing your dream, goal or mission in life is your own laziness," Bozgoz said.
Adding, "Don’t let negative thought processes hold you back."
(Editor’s note: This story is based on an article by Spc. Jennifer Spradlin, 43rd Army Public Affairs Detachment.)