(Photo by EJ Hersom, 14 MAY 2013. Article by Shannon Collins of Joint Hometown News Service, Defense Media Activity, 17 MAY 2013.)
COLORADO SPRINGS - As the young Army specialist sat in the 5-pound speed wheelchair, she took a deep calming breath, buckled her helmet, put her hands on the wheels and raced down the track. Any slight movement of the hips would move the chair outside the lane and would leave the athlete disqualified.
But she went all-out and took the gold in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 1,500-meter race chair races.
For Army Spc. Elizabeth Wasil, this was yet another new experience. She took three gold medals in the race chair, a bronze medal in the shot put and a bronze in the hand cycle/recumbent cycling race during the 2013 Warrior Games, which concluded yesterday at the Olympic Training Center and the U.S. Air Force Academy here.
Throughout the seven-day event, wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans from the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard, along with a team from U.S. Special Operations Command and a team from the British military, competed in track and field, shooting, swimming, cycling, archery, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball.
Wasil began her warrior journey at 16, when she decided to focus on her studies and sought out the Army National Guard’s Arizona Project Challenge, an intensive five-month program that gave her a glimpse at military life and the ability to graduate from high school before she turned 17.
“It changed my life,” Wasil said. “It was the happiest I could remember being. This program gave me structure, discipline and a foundation. I found somewhere I belonged and met mentors who believed in me and changed my life. It was amazing.”
Following in the military footsteps of her retired Marine dad, James Marks, she enlisted in the Army at age 17. And just like her father, who served in Vietnam, she deployed, serving in Iraq in 2010. She was in Iraq as a medical assistant when she suffered injuries to her hips.
While recovering from three hip surgeries, Wasil fought with the Army medical board to stay in. She could have received a medical retirement, she said, but she was determined to stay on active duty and serve her country. She proved her capabilities to the medical board by competing in the Warrior Games last year and was found fit for duty in July.
Wasil said her recovery began with swimming.
“I was going to the pool on my own to try rehabilitation when [Army] Master Sgt. [Rhoden] Galloway saw me swimming and suggested I try out,” she said of her Warrior Games teammate. “The Warrior Games was my first adult swim competition, and I got a gold, silver and a bronze in women’s swimming. It was fun.”
Wasil said the Warrior Games changed her life. “They showed me how to adapt in ways I never knew I could,” she explained. “They gave me a whole new path in life that I would’ve never known existed.”
Using her fighter instinct, Wasil trained so well in the pool that when she competed in breast stroke races of 50, 100 and 200 meters in an international event, she broke an American record.
“They thought I was going to come in 12th or 14th in all of my races,” she said. “I ended up winning all three races. It was very emotional and overwhelming, but great. I just wanted to qualify. It was a great first race.”
Wasil not only beat records, but also became too good to compete in swimming events at this year’s Warrior Games. She’s now a member of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program at Fort Carson, Colo., and is working on her swimming times so she can compete in the Paralympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
At this year’s games, Wasil switched from the upright bikes to the recumbent bikes, which require more arm and leg power. She joked that she was proud that her arms could pull that race off, and that the hills were no joke.
Wasil, always quick to laugh or smile, said she was a little scared but excited when she competed in the speed chair.
“It was my first time in a speed chair competitively. I was scared again,” she said with a smile. “The Warrior Games is a time for a lot of new things. I was in the chair for the first time racing, and when I did my first race, I just went all-out. The chair’s so hard, but so rewarding. When I was done, it was an adrenaline rush. I just went from one race to the next.”
When Wasil received her medal for cycling, she had the chance to meet Britain’s Prince Harry and get a photo taken with him. He was a nice guy, she said, but the always-focused soldier added that she was paying more attention to her teammates and their accomplishments.
Wasil said the Warrior Games tapped into her warrior spirit and reassured her that even if she was medically retired, she would still be a part of the military.
“When I was facing the med board, I was scared that when I left the Army, I would lose my military family,” she said. “Whether you stay in the military or get out, it’s good to know that you never lose that family. Maintain that pride for your service and know that even when you’re out, we still accept you and love you as if you’re in.”
Wasil’s husband, Colton, a personal trainer, said his wife always is a positive person who loves the military.
“If she had her way, she would be 80 years old and still serving in the Army,” he joked. “She’s always positive and motivated. She has a great personality. I’m very happy for her successes. She does well in anything she enters. She’s capable of anything she sets her mind to. I’m so proud of her.”
Her warrior spirit and love of the military are ever-evident, he said.
“She’s legitimately excited to be in the military,” he said. “She was inspired by her father, and the military is just who she is. It fits her perfectly. She’s military.”
Special Report: Warrior Games 2013