Air Force warriors back on the battlefield

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  • By Staff Sgt. Mareshah Haynes
  • Defense Media Activity
It started as a low whisper. As the volume increased, so did the intensity. The mob of warriors and steel steeds began to pulse with energy as they decreed their battle cry. Can't stop, won't stop. Gotta, gotta, gotta win. Can't stop, won't stop. Gotta, gotta, gotta win. CAN'T STOP! WON'T STOP! GOTTA, GOTTA, GOTTA WIN!

These warriors are members of the Air Force wheelchair basketball team competing in the 2011 Warrior Games. They have already been battle tested, some in combat and others through personal tragedy, but they have all joined together to represent the Air Force in a different capacity and on a different battlefield.

"I think what makes this team special is their willingness to fight, to keep fighting, and their never quit attitude," said Corey Lewis, the Air Force wheelchair basketball team head coach. "Believe it or not, it wasn't hard for them to gel as a team, because they're just fun-loving, happy people."

After just one week of training during their first training camp in February, and one week of training prior to the games, the Air Force warriors had to be ready to take on their competitors from other branches of service. Each night, the team would enter the gym to face a new battle and a new opponent.

"It wasn't an easy task (to get the team all on the same page), because a lot of the team members are not in the chair every day," Lewis said. "As far as conditioning in the chair goes, we did a lot of upper body drills, a lot of "suicides" -- where you go to one point on the court and back and then to another point and back -- and just being in the chair and only using your upper body it can be challenging and draining. We did that for the first couple of days and then we worked our way into plays and strategy."

The team consists of members who live day-to-day in a wheelchair and those who are only in the chair to compete in the games. The range of injuries of the team members runs from amputations to post-traumatic stress disorder.

"When I first started playing basketball last year it was rough on my mind," said Christopher D'Angelo, a veteran player. "I felt like I would be ridiculing somebody who can't walk and they can watch me stand up after the game and walk away. That totally wasn't the case.

"I felt like I was going in stronger, being able to play basketball, but it's a whole different game when you're sitting down and strapped in," he said. "The disadvantage that I had was that I wasn't a strong wheelchair basketball player. (The players who use wheelchairs on a daily basis) are physically stronger when it comes to upper body strength."

During the two 20-minute halves, the players play full-court, using their upper body strength to propel their bodies and chairs. With those same muscles, they still have to pass, dribble, block, turn, stop and sometimes pick themselves up after a collision on the hardwood.

"The difference between wheelchair and standing up playing basketball is that wheelchair basketball is more exhausting physically and mentally," D'Angelo said. "You can't get to where you want to get to just walking or running over there. Mentally, (the hardest part) is knowing where you want to be and not being able to get there. Taking a normal shot that you could take 15 feet away from the basket -- it's not going to happen."

Besides the physical challenges the players faced by being in a wheelchair, there were obstacles in adapting strategies from regular basketball.

"One of the biggest adjustments that the team had to get used to from everyday basketball to wheelchair basketball is there is no lateral movement, only back and forth," said Lewis, who without previous coach experience, accepted the challenge to coach the team after the original coach wasn't able to attend the second training camp. "Everybody is on the same playing field. No one can outjump the next person for a rebound, and it's not as easy to get a shot off using only your upper body."

Although Lewis spent a lot of time coaching the team and teaching them skills they needed to win, the athletes weren't the only ones learning lessons on the court.

"From being the coach of this team, I've learned to be patient," Lewis said. "To be a coach, you have to put yourself in the position to learn from your players. It humbled me. They've taught me not to take the small things in life for granted. A lot of these guys have lost limbs, and the things that we take for granted in everyday life are precious to them."

During the weeklong competition in Colorado Springs, Colo., the scoreboards may not have always reflected the Air Force team as the winner, but after overcoming physical and mental obstacles to come compete in these games, how can they be anything besides winners?

"They're not a team that gives up," Lewis said. "I think because of their experiences, they continue to have that never-quit attitude on the court. They carry it over from their everyday lives.

"There are three things I told my team we must have to get a medal: we've got to have heart, we've got to have teamwork, and we've got to have fun," he said. "I really feel like that will lead us to a medal, and even if we don't get a medal I feel like we've accomplished a lot together as a team."

Medals or no, the team won't leave Colorado empty handed. Some might consider what they've gained more valuable than any gold, silver or bronze.

I'm really glad I had the opportunity to be involved in the Warrior Games," Lewis said. "Not only as a coach, but even if I was here just to be a cheerleader, I'm really glad I was here."

"We're going to come out a team, just like we went into it," D'Angelo said. "We're going to be happy that we competed, and nothing is going to keep us down. We're all stronger for even coming to the Warrior Games. The moment everybody stepped up to sign up for this and became a part of the Air Force team, we became winners. We're a different kind of team; we're a family.

"This year I'm going to take away 18 new friends," he said.