By Shannon Collins, Defense Media Activity
The crowd cheered at York-Lions Stadium here as 3-year-old Vada ran out to hug her dad, medically retired Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Nate DeWalt, and ran back to her mom, Erica, with her new “necklace,” an Invictus Games’ gold medal.
DeWalt, who is also the proud father of Vail, 1, said having his family here to watch him compete at his first Invictus Games means everything to him.
“It’s been absolutely incredible to share this experience with my family,” he said with a broad smile, his voice full of emotion. “I think in the back of my head at the start line, I’m doing this for my children. I told my wife, Erica, I would’ve just been happy leaving here with the experience. The medals were a bonus. To be able to put a medal around my daughter’s neck was just the most incredible feeling I think I’ve ever had.”
DeWalt said families are critical to the recovery process.
“I’m very thankful for the Fisher House Foundation, Team Navy and for Team U.S. bringing our families here,” he said. “Families are a very critical part in our recovery and that support system. To be able to share that experience with them is hands down the best experience I could ever have.”
Erica DeWalt, while wrangling her feisty blonde daughters, said she’s very proud of her husband. “He’s been getting better and better as the years go on, and we’ve been making a lot of friends,” she said.
Erica said she enjoys bringing her daughters to events like the Invictus Games, because they aren’t afraid to be around people with disabilities.
“[Vada]’s not afraid to ask questions. She’ll say, ‘Where’s his legs?’ and I’ll tell her. She’ll see burn victims, and she’s not afraid. She asks questions, so I think it’s great for her to see all kinds of disabilities.”
DeWalt earned gold medals in the men’s 100-meter, 200-meter and 1,500-meter races in his disability category. He earned a bronze medal in the 400-meter race.
More than 550 wounded, ill and injured service members from 17 nations are competing in 12 sporting events, including archery, track and field, cycling, golf, sitting volleyball, swimming, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball from Sept. 23-30 as they are cheered on by thousands of family members, friends and spectators in the Distillery District here.
DeWalt was injured in a motorcycle accident in 2008, when a vehicle ran a stop sign and hit him. As he gained consciousness at the site of the accident, he said he didn’t need doctors to tell him what was wrong. He knew he was paralyzed from the chest down. As soon as he came out of a medically induced coma, he began his rehabilitation.
“I knew I was going to do whatever it took in order to get out of that bed, whether it was walking again or in a wheelchair,” said DeWalt, who competed on the 2012 U.S. Para Triathlon Team at the Auckland, New Zealand, world championships. He has also competed at Department of Defense Warrior Games and earned medals in track and field and wheelchair basketball.
DeWalt said he didn’t have a lot of expectations going from the DoD Warrior Games and competing internationally in the Invictus Games.
“I didn’t know what to expect here,” he said. “I didn’t know what the caliber of athletes would be. I didn’t really have a clue as to the dynamic of this entire event so to be here amongst some of the greatest athletes in the world, it’s just absolutely amazing.
He added, “I feel honored and privileged to be around so many of my brothers and sisters in arms and to share this experience with them. The medals are just a bonus. It’s already been an experience, and we still have a week to go. I’m excited for what’s in store, what’s coming and it’s a blessing. It really is.”
DeWalt said the camaraderie among the competitors from the different nations as well as amongst Team U.S. from the different service branches has been top notch.
“The camaraderie has been, hands down, probably the strongest I’ve ever seen; 17 countries coming together, [sometimes] equipment breaks and somebody’s there for you,” he said. “I was just on the start line a few minutes ago and one of our U.S. athletes was having an issue with his equipment. I went over and fixed his bike for him quickly so he could compete in the race and still have that competitive advantage. It’s a team effort here. When we line up on that starting line, we’re competitors but as soon as you cross that finish line, we’re back to that brotherhood and making sure that everyone is together and no one’s left behind.”
DeWalt said Invictus is the epitome of brotherhood.
“There’s a language barrier with people from some of these countries, but it doesn’t matter because we get through, day after day, and we’re carrying each other through this week together from start to finish,” he said. “From opening ceremonies to closing ceremonies, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, these guys are role models. Their ability to come out here and push through their injuries and inspire and conquer the challenges that maybe they wouldn’t have done otherwise is absolutely incredible.”
DeWalt said he’s awed by his experiences at the Invictus Games.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” he said passionately. “The Invictus Games has changed me as a person. I feel humbled to be here.”