COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. ― About 300 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada gathered at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs Saturday to kick off the 2018 Warrior Games.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva, and comedian and former “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart welcomed the athletes and the more than 500 family members accompanying them to the opening ceremonies at the academy’s Falcon Stadium. Country singer Eric Paslay opened the ceremonies, and pop star Kelly Clarkson concluded it with a concert.
Stewart, who regularly hosts the Warrior Games and entertains troops overseas with the USO, praised the example the athletes set, and urged all in attendance to emulate them.
“I hope you’re here not just to support them, but to learn from them,” Stewart said. “I hope a fraction of their tenacity, their honor, their grace, their resilience, and their teamwork will inspire me to do better in my life every day.”
“It is always an honor to be here ― even when the Aussie team brings the blow-up ‘roo,” Stewart said to laughter, gesturing at the inflatable, boxing glove-wearing kangaroo hoisted aloft by athletes from the Australian Defence Force.
Goldfein said the athletes at the games show others how to grow stronger over time, as they conquer their challenges.
“They’re not defined by illness, or injury, or the invisible wounds of war,” Goldfein said. “They’re defined by their courage, their determination, their grit, their resilience, and their friends and family who cheer them on here and at home. Every athlete’s story is unique and deeply personal, but with common threads of strength and resilience. And these Warrior Games allow all of us to recommit that no warrior takes the road to recovery alone.”
The Warrior Games were first held in 2010, and give troops and veterans with both visible and non-visible wounds ― including spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, visual impairments, upper- and lower-body injuries, serious illnesses such as cancer, and post-traumatic stress ― a chance to compete in adaptive sports, and help build self-esteem, reduce their dependency on pain medication, and increase their independence, among other benefits.
This year, Canadian athletes are competing for the first time, and the games are adding three new events ― indoor rowing, powerlifting, and time trial cycling. The games’ 11 Paralympic-style events also include archery, cycling, track and field, shooting, seated volleyball, swimming, track and wheelchair basketball.
The boisterous opening ceremonies saw troops from the nations ― including the United States’ Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Special Operations Command ― try to outdo each other in hyping up the crowd and cheering for their own services.
The Navy team did particularly well, parading in bearing two pirate flags. As Stewart egged on the various teams to try to outdo each other in cheering ― at one point taunting, “Are you gonna let them get away with that?” ― a handful of Navy athletes staged what appeared to be a haka.
“I believe Navy is putting a spell on the other teams,” Stewart said. “This is bad! And now we are all cursed with four years’ bad luck.”
There was some wind-related difficulty lighting the cauldron to open the games, something Stewart wasn’t about to let Goldfein give up on.
After a torch relay including famed Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Israel Del Toro, this year’s commander of the games Air Force Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, and troops from each service and nation, the opening ceremonies appeared about to reach their climax when retired Air Force Master Sgt. Shanon Hampton stood on stage near Goldfein, holding the torch aloft.
“Master Sgt. Hampton, are you ready?” Goldfein said. “Let’s light the cauldron.”
But as much as Hampton stretched, barely getting the torch’s flame above the tall cauldron’s rim, the winds blew the torch’s flame away and it didn’t catch. The announcer proclaimed the still-dark torch “officially lit,” Goldfein declared the games open and began to leave the stage with Hampton.
“Let’s get a ladder out there, man!” Stewart said, running after Goldfein and Hampton and drawing more cheers from the crowd. “Come on back here. No, no, no, no, no!”
Hampton brought the torch back, and handed it to a stagehand climbing a stepladder, and finally, the torch blazed.
“Done!” Stewart said. “We are open for business!”