Outdoor

An Enduring Impact: Adaptive Athletes and their Ambassadors 5/5 (3)

This article is brought to you by Operation Enduring Warrior, an organization dedicated to honoring, empowering, and motivating wounded veterans. 

First off I must say that I’m no warrior… but I have the honor of knowing several!  Allow me to tell you about a few of them.

handcycles, adaptive athletes, wounded veterans,
(Marine Corps Historic Half, May 2015. Left to right: Adam Keys, Earl Granville, Brian Ugalde, Eric Hunter)

I’ve been a team member with Operation Enduring Warrior for over three years now.  When you see these athletes wearing a gas mask and military uniforms during a race, it definitely catches your eye.  Take another few seconds to make sense of it, and often you will see at least one person among them with some kind of limb amputation, walking with crutches, rolling along in a wheelchair, or some other adapted movement.  It moves you somewhere inside, suddenly it all makes sense, and you want in.  Occasionally you see one of these adaptive athletes also wearing the gas mask.  I get it- it’s harder to see and more importantly it’s harder to breathe and more.  Wearing the mask is about embodying not only the struggles our wounded veterans cope with the rest of their lives, but also returning to them a piece that the service member may have lost in the field- physically, emotionally, or mentally (or some of all three).

After about a year as a Community Ambassador, I was brought onto the team In January 2014.  I would provide a higher support in some of my other roles, starting with wounded veteran outreach.

More than Racing

giant crab, parade float, men in crab claws, crab claws
(Outer Banks Marathon, November 2013, with now OEW VP of Development, Jesus Olvera)

I first got involved with OEW to give a higher purpose to my running, something I had only been doing regularly for two years prior.  My first races were OCRs (obstacle course racing), which were fun yet added multiple physical dimension that running alone I felt missed.  Instead of wearing a brand for a race series, it was awesome to represent a worthy organization that supports heroes who sacrificed for us.   Very quickly I realized the mission was much more about doing races in a branded shirt.  

streetwear

 

On May 31, 2013, I met someone who would change the course of my involvement with OEW.  Those who know me enough know I am talking about Eric Hunter, who one year prior stepped on an IED.  His right leg below the knee was blown off in the blast, and he had been salvaging his left leg through over 50 surgeries with the help of a fixator at the time.  We linked up at his surprise “Alive Day” party, after I had decided to run a race in his honor the month prior.  By then I had been following the “Prayers for Eric Hunter” page on Facebook for only a few months.  Throughout the year, I would do a couple more races in Eric’s honor and he started getting me up to Walter Reed to visit him and his wife Kenna.  They introduced me to more of their friends around Walter Reed and got me plugged in.  

 

men doing pushups, 22 a day, pushup challenge
(Pushup challenge raising money for Eric’s future adaptive home)

 

It is because of the outreach Eric was helping me accomplish that OEW brought me on board.  Eric is the one who made me a team member, and my relationship with him and his family grew from spending birthdays together and babysitting their kids, to eventually getting the Hunter family on their first OEW events, completing physical challenges to raise money for his future adaptive home, and even working on a movie set together.  It took two and a half years before Eric could join us for an OCR, which would be the Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint, September 2015.  Climbing up the rope alongside my brother and best friend is still my fondest race moment, symbolizing what we had built and the milestones Eric continues to make in his own recovery.  My continued work and involvement with OEW is how I honor the relationship Eric and I have.

 

rope climb, spartan race, obstacle course, oew
(Rope Climb at Ft. Bragg Spartan Sprint, September 2015)

 

A Growing Mission

As the Adaptive Athlete Liaison, I am the primary contact for candidates to go through the screening process to enter OEW’s adaptive athlete programs.  The role is only one arm of many that help our base of adaptive athletes grow, but it is also a role that gives us an opportunity to cultivate a relationship with the wounded veterans to plug them into their first event or program.  Just two years ago, we were still looking for honorees to join us for select events.  Now it has flipped and we are working more events to help meet a demand for our now larger adaptive athlete base.   

One of the first AA candidates I vetted through in May 2015 was Rick Kolberg, who has since become one of our team members.  Something I was able to do with him unlike others was meet face to face to discuss business before advancing him into our programs.  Rick was at Walter Reed recovering from injuries after a 50ft fall, and was barely shuffling to walk.  Five months later he and I were enjoying dinner in Arlington with another OCA, when during normal conversation Rick would drop that our meet saved his life… it took overnight and through part of work the following day for that to sink in for me.  HOW do you respond to that, when you felt you were just doing a duty for the organization?  In fact, I STILL don’t know how to respond every time he brings it up in his own write-ups and testimonies for OEW.  I guess you just push on for the next, and continue doing what you do.  Through our support for each other, Rick also became another one of my closest brothers.  He showed me that the impact we make may not show immediately, but will come back full circle when we least expect it.

(Left to right: Rick Kolberg, Matthew Spencer, Emory Lieber, Brian Ugalde)

As the DC/Mid-Atlantic region Outreach Coordinator, I seek community opportunities to spread the mission of OEW.  Opportunities include info booths at vendor fairs or athletic events, while others are fundraising socials at restaurants or fundraising collaborations with local businesses.  Some of my favorite outreach efforts include an early morning PT session with the sailors at NSA Annapolis where Ed Salau and Adam Keys handcycled a run portion, a speaking opportunity at Northern High School where Ballard Hall gave the football team a different kind of pep talk before leading the team onto the field to a home game victory, and a unique chance for our OCAs to escort fashion models on stage at the National Capital Area Cake Show working with Food Network star Norman Davis.  In February 2016, with Eric Hunter’s help, we were able to meet Andrew Maitner and his wife Nicole, supporting Andrew through a series of support videos in his final weeks before he would pass from a rare bone cancer.  When you are persistent and committed, your network sees that and will actually pass opportunities to you. Outreach truly is limited only by the imagination and commitment of the individuals.  

I guarantee that if your contributions to the organization are consistent and beyond doing races, OEW will have a place for you.  Lastly, I will leave everyone with this… Before any of our wounded veteran honorees are “Adaptive Athletes”, they are a father, son, mother, daughter, brother, sister, spouse, friend, best friend, and more.  The second we forget that is the minute our organization, and many others, start to fall.

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Brian Ugalde

Brian Ugalde