Naval Base Ventura County Hosts U.S. Invictus Teams

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By Tim Pompey

When you think of the Wounded Warrior Project, athletic competition isn’t usually the first thought that comes to mind. But don’t tell that to the U.S. military team athletes who have come to Naval Base Ventura County to prepare for the 2018 Invictus Games scheduled for October 20 to 27 in Sydney, Australia. They’re training hard and they consider themselves elite athletes. For them, making the team is a matter of hard work and pride.

Of course, this isn’t your normal rehab process. We’re talking athletes participating in multiple sports at a high level of achievement. At the forefront, the question always is, how did these Wounded Warriors end up excelling in all these different sports?

Marsha Gonzales, U.S. Invictus Team Manager

The answer in part is provided by Marsha Gonzales, the U.S. Invictus Team Manager from San Antonio, TX.

“As part of every service member’s recovery,” she explained, “whether they’re wounded, ill, or injured, the Department of Defense ensures that sport is offered as part of their recovery plan.”

And while sport may be a form of recovery, for these Invictus athletes, it’s their inspiration to push boundaries and compete.

“Their journey starts with an introduction to their sport, and some of those people get really inspired,” she said. “They want to take it to the next step and be competitive in their sports. The folks that are here have used sports as part of their recovery and they’re pretty much the best of the best that the Department of Defense has to offer.”

As for the Invictus Games, they were founded after a trip by The Duke of Sussex to the Warrior Games in the United States in 2013. The Duke saw the positive impact sport could have on the recovery and rehabilitation of wounded, injured and ill servicemen and women.

As a result, The Invictus Games Foundation was established, and in 2014 London hosted the inaugural Invictus Games at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, with more than 400 competitors from 13 nations.

The competition has grown this year to 18 nations. For the U.S. team, they’re going to come together from all four different services. Sporting events will include basketball, rugby, volleyball, tennis, golf, sailing, a driving challenge, track and field, archery, swimming, and cycling.

All in all, the 2018 team includes 70 athletes, including 32 who are active duty. They will be supported by 170 family and friends.

This year’s team initially had their sporting trials at Port Hueneme back in the Spring. Returning to the base for training seemed a natural fit.

“We’re going to depart from California,” said Gonzales, “so we thought, what better place to train then in California. The Navy offered to host us here again in Port Hueneme.”

The Invictus athletes are a mix of wounded, ill, and injured. As Gonzales described them: “They may have been wounded in combat. They may have been injured in a training accident, or they may have had a very serious illness they battled back from and used sport to do it.”

Of course, there are certain adaptations that are made to accommodate the athletes. For instance, Anthony McDaniel, one of the Team U.S. Assistant Basketball Coaches, explained how athletes play wheelchair basketball and rugby. The key to the chair’s design is the angle of the wheels.

“The reason why the wheels are at an angle and two wheels are in the back is for stability,” said McDaniels, “because in sports you want to have quick side to side. The deeper out the wheels, the quicker the turns.”

And it’s not just the angle of the wheels, but their size. “They also have different size wheels,” he added. “Some guys like the speed. Some guys like the power. You have bigger wheels for the guys who want to stand out and be a little bit higher under the goal for easy shots, and then you have the smaller wheels for guys who want to get up and get in people’s way.”

As for the athletes, they all have their own stories to tell, from rehab to discovery to participation to all out competition.

Douglas Godfrey, a gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corp for 15 years, suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident. His sports are archery, hand cycling, and swimming. Today he’s practicing with the archery team.

Douglas Godfrey, Gunnery Sergeant, Marine Corps, competing in archery, hand cycling, and swimming

“Archery is a part of my rehab process,” he recounted. “After the injury you have a lot of concerns and problems that pop up. You’re trying to get yourself out of your head and out of the problems you have now.”

It takes some time to change your thought process and rediscover your goals and interests.

“Post injury, I needed to find outlets to focus and do other stuff, so I ended up finding my way into archery,” he said.

For Godfrey the problem was not just physical, but also mental. He needed something to challenge his mind. It started with air rifle and air pistol. Then the Marines asked him to choose a second sport.

“I wanted to find something similar, so I could achieve benefits as well,” he said. “I thought archery can’t be too much different. I just kind of fell in love with it.”

Heather Carter, Signals Intelligence Analyst, Air Force, competing in swimming, track and field, cycling, and rowing

Heather Carter is a Senior Airman and Signals Intelligence Analyst in the U.S. Air Force. She had a leg amputated. A talented athlete, she is part of the swimming, track and field, cycling, and rowing teams. A former runner, she had to find something that would serve as a substitute stress reliever. For her, she turned to cycling.

“I began riding with Soldier Ride and then Achilles,” she recalled. “Once I became a part of the Air Force Wounded Warrior Program in 2016, I’ve been riding with them as well as Achilles ever since.”

The bike she rides is a high-tech adaptation which uses hands instead of legs. As she described it:

“Instead of riding your traditional upright bike with two wheels, due to my injury, I take off my prosthetic leg and then I’ll ride the bike as if it were a hand cycle. It’s a tri-wheel bike. It’s propelled by the speed of your arms.”

For Heather, it’s not quite on par with running, but it’s a close second.

“Honestly, cycling was the closest to, as I call it, hitting the pavement,” she stated. “For stressors and time to myself, I used to love to go out and run. Due to my injury, unfortunately I’m not able to return to running. Cycling kind of gave me that avenue for the relief of the stresses that I had.”

Alex Nguyen is a Marine Corp combat engineer. Injured in Afghanistan by an IED, eventually his ankle had to be amputated. Now a student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, he currently competes collegiately in wheelchair basketball. He also is a part of the Invictus Team for wheelchair basketball and rugby.

Alex Nguyen, Combat Engineer, Marine Corps, competing in basketball and rugby

Basketball, however, was a discovery. “The first time I ever did any of that, I did volleyball and field, and then I came and watched my buddies play,” he remembered.

What he likes is the teamwork and the competition.

“It’s really aggressive,” he asserted, “so I wanted to try it, and then I fell in love with it.”

Nguyen enjoys the teamwork, but it also reminds him of serving with his comrades. “I love to play with the team, just contributing and helping out, just having that battlelike feeling again,” he said.

As for going to Australia, is he looking forward to it?

“Yeah, definitely,” he laughed. “It seems like a fun place to be. Beats being in the wintertime back home.”

Athletes practicing for basketball and rugby

Photo Credits: Tim Pompey


Tim Pompey, a freelance writer who has done lots of local affairs and entertainment/cultural writing, lives in Oxnard. Tim is also a fiction writer (Facebook Page). You can learn about his books on Amazon.com: amazon.com/author/booksbytimpompey.

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