Warrior, Athlete, Champion
The Invictus Games 2016
Invictus. It means unconquered. It also describes the embodiment of wounded warriors from around the globe.
As the sun rises over the horizon, palm tree fronds rustle with a slight breeze. The air is thick with humidity and birds chirp softly, but in a 220-acre spread outside of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, it is already busy with thousands of people.
It is the start of Invictus Games 2016 and more than 500 athletes from 14 nations have descended at the event.
Great Britain's Prince Henry of Wales, commonly known as Prince Harry, saw how the horrors of war affected service members - men and women he had served with. But a chance trip in 2013 to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to watch the Warrior Games and witnessing how adaptive sports helped heal, both in mind, body and spirit, Harry knew this could be much bigger.
With help from the royal family and corporate sponsors, the Invictus Games were born.
The inaugural games were hosted on the Prince's home turf in London in 2014. This international Para-Olympic style competition has grown ever since.
The athletes come from all backgrounds and walks of life. Some are missing limbs, some are confined to wheelchair and some may appear uninjured, when in reality they are afflicted by invisible wounds.
These service members entered the opening ceremonies, their heads held high with pride shining through their eyes.
Harry took the stage to give his opening speech.
"I just wanted to be one of the guys," he said. "When I traveled back from the battlefield on a plane carrying the body of a Danish soldier and three young Brits fighting for their lives, I began to understand the true cost of war," he told the audience.
Using that same emotion, Harry put his focus on the competitors sitting in front of him.
"I cannot tell you how proud and excited I am to open the second Invictus Games here in America," Harry said. "You are role models that any parent would be proud to have their children follow."
The 1875 poem 'Invictus' by British poet William Ernest Hemley, lends the games its name:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Athletes competed in 10 events; archery, indoor rowing, powerlifting, road cycling, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair rugby, and wheelchair tennis. They were cheered on by thousands of spectators and family members.
For the 19 Sailors representing team USA, it is an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience and a chance to meet other wounded warriors from around the globe - Sailors such as retired Lt. John Edmonston, who competed in the 2014 games.
"I am proud to compete in the Invictus Games again," said Edmonston, who competed in swimming. "I am motivated by my team and by my desire to achieve greatness. I am ready to succeed."
Then there is Brett Parks, a retired naval aircrewman, who competed in both swimming and sitting volleyball. He spikes the ball like Thor throwing his hammer. But he is charismatic with a smile that shows his disability does not hinder him in his goals.
"Adaptive sports help me get out of bed in the morning," Parks said. "Being severely injured like most of us are, it's tough to find any positives to live for, but knowing we're part of a team helps us get up and work to better ourselves, one day at a time."
Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, cheered on team USA during the wheelchair rugby gold medal match against team Denmark.
Prior to the start of the match Biden and his wife made their way to the middle of the court to thunderous applause.
"You make a difference," said Biden. "They are the masters of their fate," referencing the poem. "But what you also are, you're also the captains of your countries' soul. You are the spine. You are the backbone. Thanks for being who you are."
There were so many stories of triumph and strength and camaraderie that came from the weeklong games. Such as retired Army Sgt. Elizabeth Marks who won four gold medals in swimming, but gave one to Prince Harry to bring back to the staff, at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, England, who had saved her life 2014.
Then there was the sitting volleyball team from Georgia. Prior to the games, the team had no experience and learned the game from team UK via Skype. Team Georgia made it all the way to the semifinals.
As the games came to a close Thursday evening, team USA finished strong with a gold medal finish in wheelchair basketball. Team USA won 51 gold medals and 145 medals overall.
In Harry's last speech of the games to the competitors he said, "You are all Invictus! You are now ambassadors for the spirit of these games. Spread the word; never stop fighting and do all you can to lift up everyone around you."
The Invictus Games will return spring 2017 in Toronto, Canada.