MUNGYEONG, South Korea - U.S. service members earned the first three gold medals presented for para-athletics at the Military World Games.
U.S. Army Sgt. Elizabeth Wasil took gold for winning the Women's Shot Put Para final Oct. 4 in Mungyeong, South Korea. U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Brown took gold Oct. 5 for winning the 100-meter dash for para-athletes with a time of 12.5 seconds. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Ivan Sears won the 100-meter para Class D wheelchair race the same day in 16.25 seconds.
This is the first time the Conseil International du Sport Militaire, or CISM, has held exhibition contests for injured, ill or wounded service members during its world games, held every four years. Para athletes competed in the CISM Track and Field Championships in Germany in 2013, but not in the last CISM World Games in Rio de Janeiro. This year they're competing in several track and field categories, along with archery.
The medals do not count toward country totals, however, since para-athletics is still considered an exhibition sport by CISM. Nevertheless, the three athletes said they were proud to stand on the winner's podium and salute the raising of the stars and stripes as the national anthem boomed through the stadium.
Sgt. Elizabeth Wasil
Wasil was a combat medic in Afghanistan when she sustained bilateral hip injuries that required three surgeries. Doctors then said she would never walk. Yet Monday she ran the 100-meter dash with male para athletes.
Wasil attributes her incredible recovery to adaptive sports and the Warrior Games which she first entered in 2012. Those eventually led to her joining the Army's World Class Athlete Program with an eye on the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.
As a WCAP athlete, her past competitions in track and shot put were in a specially-designed wheelchair. However a new chair was delivered just days before the World Games with a serious defect, Wasil said. The chair had to be sent back and there was no time to build another one.
Wasil decided she would compete standing.
After her first two throws, Wasil was trailing behind silver-medalist Cerjtti Fabio from Italy.
"Those were my first two shot puts standing ever, so it was kind of learning while competing," she said.
"I had used a shot put in a chair seated, but it's mechanically very different."
Her third throw beat Fabio's and each one kept going farther.
"I became more comfortable and I found my groove with it," Wasil said. "It became more familiar and I learned that you shoot the shot put up as opposed to out."
Wasil's fifth throw went for the winning 6.46 meters.
The next day she ran the 100-meter dash with the men, since no other para-athlete women were ready to compete. She finished 8.6 seconds slower than teammate Brown who won the gold, but it was her first time running it.
Sgt. Robert Brown
Brown's squad came under fire in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2006 and he took multiple gunshot wounds to his right side. He was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and eventually ended up losing his right leg to amputation.
Brown, who runs with a prosthetic leg, said the 1970s television series "The Six-Million-Dollar Man" that put an Air Force pilot back together with bionics technology to make him stronger and faster, may not be an inaccurate analogy for the not-too-distant future.
"They're definitely putting us back together piece by piece with as much technology as they can," he said.
But to get where he's at today, Brown said he's had too many operations to count. He began adaptive sports in 2009 and said it's definitely been a healing process.
"It gives you something to strive for and definitely helps," he said.
Brown joined the Army's World Class Athlete Program in 2011 and has been working out with a steady regimen ever since in Colorado Springs. He lifts weights, runs, does calisthenics and biometrics. He runs five miles every couple of days or so with sprints in between.
He ran the 100-meter sprint Monday in 12.5 seconds. Silver medalist Gunasekaran Anandan of India was right behind at 12.55 seconds.
Brown will go on to compete in the para 200-meter race later in the week.
Sgt. Ivan Sears
Sears was with the 2-6th Marines in Afghanistan in 2010 when he stepped on an improvised explosive device.
"I went into a doorway and actually stepped on a pressure plate," Sears said. He lost both legs below his knees.
Sears has served with the Marine Wounded Warrior Detachment at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, for the past five years and helps in-process new Marines and their families. He began adaptive sports in 2013 and within a year, he was competing at Nationals.
In his San Antonio apartment, Sears has a roller -- a treadmill specifically designed for wheelchair racers. He uses that to train on rainy days when he can't get to the track.He also trains on an adaptive bike chair.
Sears finished the 100-meter chair race in 16.25 seconds at the Korean Armed Forces Athletic Corps stadium known as KAFAC. Silver medalist Jacky Patora of the Netherlands finished in 17.95 and bronze medalist Edwin Vermetten of the Netherlands finished in 20.60.
"I really just stayed focused ... from the start to the finish," Sears said, adding that he had "tunnel vision" on his lane. Later this week he will focus on the men's para shot put competition.
One hundred-meter dash silver medalist Anandan Gunasekaren of India who finished in 12.55.