Colorado Springs is the home of the United States Olympic Committee as well as a few U.S. Air Force and Army installations. That makes it an ideal location to host the Wounded Warrior Games as it has for the past few years. Every year this event has drawn increasing attention as disabled men and women from each of the branches of the U.S. military have demonstrated enormous courage and cohesiveness as they both compete and cheer each other on in Olympic style races.
This year was special; Prince Harry came to lend his support and cheered on the British Armed Forces team. Over 400 press credentials were granted as a phalanx of news anchors and camera crews—from many US network and cable companies, the BBC, Australian and even German TV— awaited Harry’s arrival at the opening event.
The pandemonium surrounding Harry was fun to watch, but it wasn’t the most inspiring event of those days. Living 5 minutes from the Air Force Academy where most of these events took place, I drove over to watch some of the track and field competitions and a few swimming events. Both times I left in tears.
I watched several classes of 100-yard running races for competitors with below-the-knee amputations, above-the-knee and above-the-waist injuries. It was amazing to watch these men and women ride in wheel chairs, or walk with canes, or get guided by teammates to the start line, and then race.
I wasn’t prepared for the camaraderie. I laughed along with dozens of other Yanks at the British soldier in the stands wearing a camouflage kilt who insisted that we cheer for the British racers, successfully getting us all to cheer, “UK! UK! UK!” though we had no idea who the UK racer was. Didn’t matter at all. We cheered rabidly.
I choked back tears as four blind men, one a Marine, one from the Navy, and two others from Special Forces, overcame their horrific wounds to race 100 yards in the darkness of their new reality. The winner ran alone, and as he ran past the finish line, was guided by a buddy in the infield who yelled, “Stop! Stop!” so he wouldn’t run straight into the fence he couldn’t see at the end of the track.
The two powerfully-built Special forces soldiers ran alongside each other, carefully sharing a two-foot long piece of rope that helped them guide each other to the end. The Navy sailor, apparently completely blinded, walked the 100 yards, with a buddy at his side, guiding him for 99 yards. As he reached the last yard and finish line, the “racer” threw his arms in the air just like anyone who overcame severe challenges would do.
I swelled with admiration when the winner of the “open” 100-yard race, a black Army soldier, slowed down as he crossed the line inadvertently cutting off the second place finisher, a white Marine. Realizing his competitor was about to crash to the ground, the Army guy spun on his heels, embraced him, and back-pedaled while guiding the Marine to a safe stop.
Army-Marine. Black guy-white guy. Competition opponents. So often these distinctions only result in battle lines. Not this time. “Who does this?” I thought. “Who reaches out to help his competitor?” I was far more impressed by the soldier’s reflexive concern for his Marine opponent than by his speed, which was impressive in its own right.
As I left the stadium following that race, I happened to walk right past the Army winner as he put on his sweats on the other side of a fence. I reached over the fence and just had to shake his hand and say, “Hey, man. That was a very classy act at the end of the race. Nice going.” He just smiled and simply said, “It was nothing, man.” Nothing? Maybe to you, I thought, but not to our hyper-competitive, self-aggrandizing culture. It was nothing? No, it was pure class.
As I said, I wasn’t prepared for the camaraderie. But I really wasn’t prepared for what I experienced the next day as I watched a few swimming races.
I swim competitively so I’m familiar with the grueling practices it takes to be ready on race day. I’m familiar with the feeling of complete aloneness as you stand on the block waiting for the gun to fire. I’m familiar with both the amped-up exhilaration of the event, as well as the nagging fear that all the work you’ve put in might fall a few split seconds short of your goals. I’m familiar with the setting, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw here.
Race after race, men and women missing a leg or an arm, were wheeled up to the starting blocks, and crawled on top until they could stand for the gun. Some could only sit on the edge of the pool and fall in. I thought to myself, I don’t expose myself like that.
Men and women with no legs, pulled themselves through the water, and then in complete exhaustion flopped onto the gutter at the side and dragged themselves to their wheel chair. I don’t take that much of a risk in front of others.
The last race I watched was a men’s 100-meter freestyle, two laps of a long, long pool for six men, all of whom were missing an arm. I don’t know if I could do what these men are doing. Their courage and determination were beyond description.
The gun went off, and most men dove off the blocks and made immediate headway despite their disabilities. Except for one, who was clearly struggling behind the others. And then I saw why: like the other swimmers he had only one arm; unlike any of the others, he had no legs. I actually gasped out loud and threw my hand over my mouth. That’s not a reaction I recall ever having before.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This was a man, formerly fit enough to fight in the British Armed Forces, probably more athletic than the great majority of people, exposing his fearsome wounds and limitations, and putting them to the test. My heart pounded for him; I barely breathed; I held my hand to my mouth; and tears streamed down my face.
When you run a race and get exhausted, you can stop and catch your breath. When you’re biking and absolutely must stop, you do. But if you’re a person with only a torso and one arm, in a ten-feet-deep pool, if you stop, you sink to the bottom. We were witnessing a life-threatening endeavor.
Courage, yes. Determination, yes. But also, indescribable humility and vulnerability. A willingness to reveal to everyone who he really is. This man was grievously wounded, extremely disabled (physically anyway), and publicly exposed. His bravery brought the whole audience and every competitor to their feet in full-hearted cheers as he worked his way to the end of the race.
I filmed it on my phone, but discovered he was filmed in the same event last year with a much better camera. You can see what I saw in this clip. The whole race is less than four minutes, or you can go to the 2-minute mark to watch his solitary battle while all the other racers, finished long before, look on with admiration.
Most men fear revealing themselves to others. We cover up flaws, we ignore or deny wounds and we run from relationships or events that we suspect will involve vulnerability. We fear that if others knew the truth about us, they would no longer respect us.
The truth is almost always the opposite. When we expose our weaknesses and tender spots to other men, three things usually happen:
1. Our story turns out to be very similar to that of another man who is listening— we find out we are not alone.
2. We engender respect and earn trust for our courage and vulnerability.
3. We are cheered on in our race.
Men, you matter. The impact of your life is so important; the consequences of your decisions are so significant. I urge you to race like the man in the story above—all out, no masks, out of the man-cave, investing great effort into those matters and those people we believe in deeply, and finding a team of like-minded men.
In I Cor. 9 Paul writes, “You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.” (Message)
All out. No sloppy living. No isolation. No shame. That’s the kind of living and racing I saw in the Wounded Warriors.The British swimmer didn’t come in first in time, but he was without question the star of the race, because he showed up and gave it everything he had despite grievous wounds.
If you’d like to talk further about how that lifestyle can be truer of you, I’d like to hear from you. Just comment below or hit Reply. Because you matter.
My greatest joy in life is my family. I know, that sounds like the comment you’re supposed to make as a man and father. All I can say is I literally shake my head in wonder at the family I have: my wife Beryl; my daughter Barclay and son-in-law Vince, their four daughters, Bella, Brynn, Brooke and Blake; my son Alec, my son Conor and daughter-in-law Bonnie, their daughter Gemma and son Calvin. Every one of them is a genuine gift. Beyond that, I have a calling that I live out through Peregrine Ministries. It is to help men: Understand their identity in Christ, Embrace their role as men, and Live out their God-given calling in life. Bottom line is I’m convinced men matter and I want to help them live life on purpose.