The Navy officer in charge of this year's Warrior Games hopes the amenities and attractions offered by the event's first big-city host, Chicago, will improve the experience for the hundreds of athletes and caregivers set to participate.
He's also hoping for another thing the city can offer that previous host locations couldn't: an audience.
"Going back to the beginning of the Warrior Games, we saw, as we were trying to pick a site location, all great competition, all inspiring, but because of the access issues getting onto the Olympic training center or onto an installation with force protection issues, the public just wasn't involved," Warrior Games Director Capt. Brent Breining said in a Friday interview.
"How do we get this message out to the public? How do we connect with those folks who are not aware of our mission, aware of how the Department of Defense provides support for our wounded warriors? Chicago quickly rose to the top as a place where we could do that."
The games run June 30-July 8 and will include events at Soldier Field (home to the NFL's Bears), the United Center (home to the NHL's Blackhawks and NBA's Bulls) and McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. Breining said he's expecting 30,000 fans to attend a kickoff concert July 1 at Soldier Field featuring Blake Shelton and Kelly Clarkson, an event that'll be emceed by comedian and 2016 Warrior Games host Jon Stewart.
He's also hoping for 10,000 fans for the July 7 medal rounds of seated volleyball and wheelchair basketball at the United Center. Portions of that event, as well as other events from around the day's competition, will air as part of ESPN's SportsCenter programming, which will broadcast on location.
The 2015 and 2016 events, the first two under DoD administration, took place on military installations at Quantico, Virginia, and West Point, New York, respectively. While those sites gave planners greater control over scheduling, transportation and other concerns, the urban setting offers positives beyond a larger population base, said Breining, who grew up in a Chicago suburb.
- Suitable accommodations for the 265 athletes, their caregivers and support staff can be hard to come by on some installations, resulting in long commutes on either side of what can be 14-hour competition days. Thanks to a centrally located downtown hotel, most athletes will be staying within about 10 minutes of their venues.
- Past host installations have met the demand for disability access that comes with these games, Breining said, but there are limits to what bases can provide. The city's offerings have allowed for the creation of a "virtual athletes' village," similar to the Olympic Games, complete with dozens of Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant accommodations.
- A July 4 break in the schedule will allow athletes, families and caregivers to take in a Cubs game or a fireworks show thanks to event sponsors. The USO will be providing guidance for those seeking entertainment options, Breining said, but officials have taken into account feedback from previous year's events and not overscheduled the down time. "If they want to to just stay in their room and sleep, recover from competing, they can do that," he said.
Athletes will compete in adaptive archery, cycling, shooting, seated volleyball, swimming and wheelchair basketball, along with track and field events. Teams from Great Britain and Australia will join those representing the Army, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force, Marines and U.S. Special Operations Command.
That alignment helps separate the Warrior Games from Prince Harry's Invictus Games, an annual international wounded warrior event the prince founded after visiting the Warrior Games in 2013, and from the Paralympics and other similar competitions.
"What the service members really miss when they leave service, whether you’re retiring from the service, separating after a tour of enlistment or, in the case of 90 percent of our folks, being medically retired because of some type of disability, is that service connection," Breining said. "You join the service to be part of a winning team, and all of a sudden, that’s taken away from you. ...
"Those relationships, whether it’s battle buddies that you knew personally or they’re new to you, a new connection, instantly you’re part of a winning team again. And that’s just so inspirational for the recovery and the rehabilitation. … It extends way beyond the sporting competition."