CHICAGO – With no breeze and the heat bearing down, cyclists battled it out at the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games here yesterday for the medal podium, but most said while they were excited to earn medals, the competition was more about teamwork.
This week, about 265 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command, and the militaries of the United Kingdom and Australia are competing in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.
Medically retired Army Spc. David Snypes Jr., had earned a gold medal in the recumbent bike last year and wanted to retain his title, which he did. His joy was racing against and with Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. John Ayo, whom he met on a Ride to Recovery event. The two had raced each other at the end of that 400-mile, week-long ride, and Snypes had won that one.
“We didn’t have much race experience then, and there was no race plan. We had just separated from the crowd like we did today and we wore ourselves out,” Snypes said. “He’s gotten a lot smarter since then. I’ve gotten smarter since then. The training and communication showed. We got together before the race and said, `Let’s work together and not kill ourselves out on the course.’ He’s a much stronger rider than me.”
Snypes said Ayo drafted off of him initially and then when he got tired, Ayo got in front of him and pulled him for a bit.
“I communicated to him not to wait for me because I wasn’t sure I could stay at the pace he was averaging but we ended up closing out really close to each other. We’re in two different [injury] categories so we both took gold but overall, he beat me by a few seconds. It was a really good race.”
Snypes said he’s proud of Ayo.
“I’m really proud of him. If I was going to lose to anybody, I would love for it to be him. He’s a great guy, a great cyclist. He’s worked hard for it. He’s been out there riding a lot,” he said.
Marine Corps Cpl. Dakota Boyer, who earned the bronze medal in his recumbent category, said he’s proud of his team.
“It was an honor to compete with them,” he said. “Gunnery Sgt. John Ayo is an amazing cyclist and [Cpl. Andrew] Harris is also a great cyclist. I was just honored to compete with them. They did an amazing job for the Marine Corps team.”
Medically retired Army Sgt. Brandi Evans, who earned the silver medal in the women’s upright category, said she was more worried about making sure her best friend and teammate, medically retired Army Staff Sgt. Megan Grudzinksi, finished strong and made it to the podium with her.
“It wasn’t an individual race for me; it was about working with Team Army,” Evans said. “I tried to keep Grudzinski up there to take up at least two of the three medals. We worked together. Navy helped pull us. We pulled them. We pulled U.K.. We pulled Air Force, and just at the end, I was spent. It was a good race. It means more to me to help another teammate to try to place than to do it on my own. She was a little behind me. I let Grudzinski draft off me because I knew I was a little stronger, and I wanted to keep her there with me. We were able to do that for three laps and then we tapered off. It just came down to quad strength at the end.”
Evans said that at one point, Grudzinski’s asthma kicked in so Evans rode up, pulled out her inhaler and pumped it for Grudzinski so she could take a few puffs on the move. Evans said she would’ve given up her medal to help Grudzinski make it to the podium. Grudzinski finished in fifth place.
Throughout the week, both athletes have been wearing bracelets that say, “I am a champion.”
“They remind us that we are [champions] because we’ve been through a lot together, and we’ve had a lot of tough times,” Evans said. “My grandmother died in January and her grandfather died about four weeks later so we helped each other get through really tough times. It was hard to stay motivated because they were really important to us in our lives, and we just really worked together and tried to motivate each other when we were down.”
Both athletes said they dedicated their races to their respective grandparents and said helping each other out is just part of being on Team Army.
“We don’t just help each other out when we’re out here at the Warrior Games,” Evans said. “We get each other through the tough times. Megan’s been there for me, and I’ve been there for her. I’d skip a medal placement any day just to know I helped a teammate when we needed each other.”
Medically retired British army Sgt. Justin Henderson thought he had gotten fourth place in his recumbent category, but got emotional when he learned he had earned a silver medal.
“I was a little emotional when I found out I had actually gotten second,” he said. “I’m over the moon. I don’t know what to say. There were a lot of curves, a few cocking the front wheel up around the curbs; it’s all living the life on the edge, really.”
Henderson said he trains in the Yorkshire Dales in the northern U.K., where there are quite a few big hills.
“My training ride back in the U.K. consists of 60 miles in six hours, with 4,000 feet of climbing. On a recumbent bike, it’s just a day out with hills and lots of sheep,” he said. His next ride is a five-day group ride from France to Germany to honor the fallen at a battlefield. He hopes to make the Invictus Games team in 2018.
Henderson thanked the city of Chicago for being so friendly to the athletes.
“Thanks for having us. It’s been a fantastic couple of weeks. It feels like family, so friendly, so open. This place is a really good place to live. I would like to live here,” he said.
Medically retired Army Spc. Michael Stephens, who earned a gold medal in tandem, was excited his niece and nephew got to see him cycle in a competition for the first time. Stephens is competing at the national team level, trying to make the Paralympic team this year for cycling. For him, the race was about representing Team Army and having his family there.
“It was a great race. It felt incredible to come here and show my family my sport. They came over after the race and gave me a huge hug. I could hear them every lap we came through. It was nice. It was great to see the whole Team Army feed off of our energy,” he said. “My favorite part of the day was going back and cheering on the rest of my teammates and the other competitors.”
Stephens’ niece, Kaylynne Towner, 22, flew in from Bozeman, Montana, to see him race.
“It was amazing. I’ve never seen him do any sports since he was in high school. It was incredible to watch him put all the effort he had into it. He makes our family so proud. He’s an incredible athlete. He’s very inspiring,” she said. “It’s inspiring to watch all of the athletes compete. It shows what you can accomplish when you put your mind to it, regardless of the limitations you have.”
“People go through their day-to-day lives thinking they have all these struggles,” Towner added. “But when you watch amputees racing and riding bikes and earning gold medals for it, it doesn’t compare. You’re like, `Wow, I can get through anything.'”
Socom’s Air Force Master Sgt. Israel “DT” Del Toro Jr., who earned a gold medal in his recumbent classification, tried to catch up to the others but is happy to have medaled not because of the win but because of its significance.
“I had a blast racing here in my hometown of Chicago and since the medal has the skyline of Chicago on it and it says `Chicago’ on it, I’ll treasure these medals a little more than any of the other ones,” he said.
Del Toro said the medals and the competitions are fun, but the reason he continues to participate in events like the DoD Warrior Games is to “inspire people to get out and start doing sports,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re military or civilian,” Del Toro said. “Come out, and you’ll see some crazy amazing things like guys with no legs swimming or guys with one leg cycling and throwing shot put. The purpose of these events is to get guys and gals out to experience and enjoy life.”
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