Published: May 17, 2011
The U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is hosting 220 servicemen and women who are wounded, injured or ill this week for the second annual Warrior Games.
"We have the Army, the Navy, the Marines, the Air Force, the Coast Guard and Special Operations Command all participating," says Charlie Huebner, chief of paralympics for the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Huebner says a primary goal of the games is to encourage people with disabilities to be physically active.
Some of the athletes are soldiers you've heard a lot about — injured by a roadside bomb or another combat-related injury. Others are accident victims or suffering from an illness.
Participants compete in seven sports: archery, cycling, basketball, shooting, swimming, track and field, and sitting volleyball. They are chosen proportionately from the various service branches.
In sitting volleyball, the net is low so that it touches the ground. And the players don't use wheelchairs, like in basketball — they sit on the floor and propel themselves however they can.
"Everybody's got different injuries," says Savage Margraf, 24, with the Marine Corps sitting volleyball team. "Some of the guys are double amputees, some are single amputees below the waist.
"This is actually a sport where having legs is a disadvantage because they get in the way," Margraf says. She is one of the few team members who still has both arms and legs.
Margraf suffers from traumatic brain injury (TBI). She says doctors attribute her TBI to two bad falls she took while serving in Iraq. One was from a watch tower on the Syrian border.
"I was helping get a 50-[caliber] barrel down — it's a machine gun," Margraf explains. "We had to change out the barrels because there was a sand storm. As I was coming down the stair, the second stair from the top broke and I fell."
Now Margraf says she has trouble with her vision. She was medically retired from the military in 2008 at 21 years old. Many of those participating in the Warrior Games are young.
Teammate Jese Schag, 21, had his right leg amputated after a motorcycle accident in 2009. He played sitting volleyball in the first Warrior Games last year.
"It's all about speed, and you've got to have good hands," Schag says. "You've got to be able to react — put your hands on the floor and then bring them up to get the ball."
Margraf says the competition is fun, but she's really here for inspiration.
"We have a swimmer who is a double amputee and blind," Margraf says. "How can you not come to this and leave with some sort of motivation and know that there are people that are way worse than you and they are trying?"
The Defense Department and the U.S. Olympic Committee organize the Warrior Games. Opening ceremonies were Monday. The sitting volleyball finals will wrap up the competition Saturday. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
At the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado this week, military veterans are getting ready for the second annual Warrior Games. Injured and ill servicemen and woman - 220 in all - will compete in seven different sports. NPR's Jeff Brady introduces us to one of the participants.
(Soundbite of ball bouncing)
JEFF BRADY: We're in a gym at Fort Carson just outside Colorado Springs. There's a volleyball net in the center. It's hung low so it touches the floor.
Ms. SAVAGE MARGRAF: Everybody's got different injuries. And some of the guys are double-amputees. Some are single-amputees below the waste.
BRADY: That's Savage Margraf. She's 24 years old and a member of the Marine Corps' sitting volleyball team. Some of her team-mates are the soldiers you've heard a lot about - injured by a roadside bomb or another combat-related injury. Others are accident victims or suffering from an illness.
Sitting volleyball does not mean everyone is in a wheelchair. They're sitting on the floor and scooting around using whatever limbs they have to propel themselves.
Ms. MARGRAF: The first day of practice, I was like, holy crap. This is really hard. This is actually a sport where having legs is a disadvantage because they get in the way.
BRADY: Margraf is one of the few who has both her arms and legs. She suffers from a traumatic brain injury that doctors attribute to a couple of bad falls she took while serving in Iraq. One was from a watch tower on the Syrian border.
Ms. MARGRAF: And I was helping get a 50-cal. barrel down. It's a machine gun. And we had to change out the barrels because there was a sandstorm. And I was helping one of the other guys do it and as I was coming down the stair, the second stair from the top broke and I fell.
BRADY: Now Margraf says she has trouble with her vision. She was medically retired in 2008 at 21 years old. Most of the people on this team appear to be in their 20s and 30s.
Margraf says she also was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had surgery just a few weeks back.
Ms. MARGRAF: I still have a pretty gruesome scar.
BRADY: Margraf says she's feeling good now though. Certainly well enough to compete. Her teammate Jese Schag had his right leg amputated after a motorcycle accident in 2009. He played sitting volleyball in the first Warrior Games last year.
Mr. JESE SCHAG: You know, you got six people on each side, just trying to get the ball over the net.
BRADY: The court is smaller than for standing volleyball, still Schag says players move around a lot.
Mr. SCHAG: It's all about speed and you got to have good hands. You got to be able to react. Put your hands on the floor and then bring them up to get the ball. So that would probably be pretty difficult for most people.
BRADY: Schag is one of the designated setters for the team. He sets up the ball so someone else can slam it over the net. Everyone has a role, including Savage Margraf.
Mr. SCHAG: Oh, she's a great passer. She gets the ball to the center almost every time she touches the ball.
BRADY: So she's good at aiming then?
Mr. SCHAG: Yeah. She'll play the back row. She'll be one of the back three people and she passes the ball great.
BRADY: The Department of Defense and the U.S. Olympic Committee organized the Warrior Games.
Ms. MARGRAF: Mine.
Unidentified Man #1: Outside.
Unidentified Man #2: There you go, Savage. Good job, Savage.
BRADY: Margraf says the competition is fun, but she's really here for inspiration.
Ms. MARGRAF: We have a swimmer who is a double-amputee and blind and he's swimming. It's like, how can you not come to this and leave with some sort of motivation and know that there are people that are way worse than you and they are trying.
BRADY: The Warrior Games continue through this week in Colorado Springs with the sitting volleyball finals on Saturday.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.