Warrior Games give veterans a new purpose: 'I actually felt like myself again'

·5-min read
Air Force Captain Nikki Evenson demonstrates sitting volleyball in a media event at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida, ahead of this month's Warrior Games. (Courtney Kiefer/Warrior Games)
Air Force Captain Nikki Evenson demonstrates sitting volleyball in a media event at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Florida, ahead of this month's Warrior Games. (Courtney Kiefer/Warrior Games)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Marine Corps Captain Andrew Hairston has always enjoyed being part of a team.

That’s why he played sports growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which brought him to Bowie State University in Maryland to run track for two years. That’s why he later joined the Marine Corps. And that’s why, after his left leg was amputated from the knee down, he took to adaptive sports.

“The paracommunity is probably the most supportive,” Hairston said. “Back when I ran track or played football, you’re not giving out your trade secrets, you’re not trying to help out the competition. But then you show up to a [para]cycling race, and guys are just willing to help you on your journey, help you learn as much as you can, help you get better. Because the paracommunity is so small, the more competition we can get, the better it is for everybody.”

Hairston is one of about 250-300 military members competing at The Department of Defense Warrior Games this month. He will compete in handcycling, track powerlifting, archery, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby.

The Warrior Games is an event during which former and active service members compete in adaptive sports. This year’s games will take place Friday through Aug. 28 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort. The competition’s purpose lies in augmenting the rehabilitation of wounded warriors through athletics.

The first games took place in 2010, and the event was most recently held in Tampa in 2019, as both the 2020 and 2021 games were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the games’ leadership (they were originally run by the U.S. Olympic Committee, then the Department of Defense took over in 2015, and the 2022 games are hosted by the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.) and slate of sports has changed throughout the years, the Warrior Games mission remains the same:

“To support wounded, ill and injured military members through their recovery journey,” said Warrior Games spokesperson Travis Claytor.

Five teams will compete, one for: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and U.S. Special Operations Command. While each team handles the selection process differently, Claytor said, they all select athletes through a sort of tryout process.

Hairston was selected for the Warrior Games this year after making his adaptive sports debut in Central Park in New York last June, just five months after the accident that resulted in the amputation of his left leg. He was hit by a car while home from deployment on Jan. 23. But in June he competed in his first handcycling race and came in third, immediately hooked.

“It was the first time that I actually felt like myself again after losing my leg and being stuck in a wheelchair for a year,” Hairston said. “So, I guess that's the reason why it kind of stuck with me. The Marine Corps, they're very big on athletics and getting the Marines out there to just take part in sports. So the moment they saw that I was doing well and cycling they asked me to come out and join the team.”

Recovery is often an individual endeavor, Hairston explained. Focusing on himself in order to heal felt at odds with his identity as a Marine, where the emphasis was on camaraderie. For that reason, being part of Team Marine Corps is what he’s most looking forward to this month.

A life-saving venture

Air Force Captain Nikki Evenson discovered adaptive sports through her branch’s Wounded Warriors program. She gravitated toward the chance to compete, pursuing archery, precision shooting and cycling, all events she’ll compete in at the Warrior Games. Evenson said she enjoys getting lost in the fundamentals of shooting and allowing her mind to let go of the day-to-day on cycling trips.

Adaptive sports saved her life after she had multiple surgeries since 2019, sustaining a non-combat traumatic brain injury and being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. In her teammates and competitors, Evenson said she found a group of folks she can be herself around.

“I don't like to be vulnerable, but around them I feel like I can be,” she said. “Especially being an officer in the military, you feel like you have to be perfect, and you can't let any of your crazy show, any of your unperfectness. But among them, you can show those vulnerabilities, and you're still accepted. That's beautiful.”

What it means to family

Mark Coltrain, retired first class petty officer in the Navy, was supposed to compete at the Warrior Games in 2021 before its cancellation. For him, the 2022 games will be the culmination of nearly two years of intense training. He is slated to participate in wheelchair basketball, seated volleyball, discus throw, shotput and archery.

During a training operation in 2019, Coltrain's aorta “decided to give out,” he said, and he had “several strokes.” His artery was repaired, and he was equipped with a mechanical heart valve. The strokes resulted in partial vision loss and mild cognitive issues, like short-term memory loss, so he had to retire.

“I looked at life after as not having a purpose, not having an identity,” Coltrain said of his mental state before finding adaptive sports. “So this kind of reined that end, saying, ‘Hey, you know, the Navy will always be part of your identity.’ And there's still things that I can do for the Navy, for the United States without actually actively serving.”

Coltrain, from Edgewater, Florida, looks forward to his family watching him compete at Disney. His wife, Riley, their three children — Thea, Freya and Koa— and his wife’s parents will be in attendance. He is excited for them to see him pursue the passion that gave him aim.

“Programs like this are the reason that kids get their dad back, wives get their husbands back, or husbands get their wife back,” Coltrain said. “I just want [people] to know how important it is not only to the athlete and to the service member, but how important it is to the entire family.”