A Message to Olympians

Giving back and saying “thank you” is always important.  Whether it be a “thank you” note to a friend who invited you for dinner or giving your time to help others, it’s a selfless act that I have found benefits me just as much, if not more, than those to whom I’m giving.

What began in girl scouts grew over the years, and I’ve volunteered in abused women and children’s shelters and spent more than one Christmas Eve in a soup kitchen serving Christmas dinner, but the most recent service was with a group of people with whom I had never worked, the military.

The military started a program called the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program that assists wounded soldiers from injury through the recovery process for as long as is needed, taking them through treatment and rehabilitation until they return to duty or leave the military. (This is a government program, different than the non-profit group The Wounded Warrior Project). Injuries range from traumatic brain injury to spinal cord injury to the loss of a limb, burns, blindness or any condition that requires extensive hospitalization or multiple surgeries.

Each branch of the military has a similar program to help the injured service men and women, returning from war, assimilate back into their respective lives post-combat.  Once a year, these programs come together in an event aptly named the “Warrior Games.”   A joint effort between the US Department of Defense and the US Olympic Committee, the games are an effort to aid in recovery and promote physical fitness and healthy lifestyles.  Representatives from each military branch compete against others, in an effort to win more medals than the others, ultimately securing the Chairman’s Cup.  More than 200 wounded servicemen, women and veterans are expected at the event, now in it’s third year, where they will compete in archery, cycling, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track & field and wheelchair basketball.  The Games will take place at the USOC April 30-May 5, 2012.

How do I tie in?  Good question.

I was invited to attend the swim team practice held at Walter Reed Medical Center, outside of Washington, DC and provide assistance with the swimmers technique.  Honored, humbled and happy to help, the morning began with introductions and smiles.   Upon hearing my last name (Phelps) and a mention of my relation to the greatest swimmer in history, a woman who had one of her legs amputated said “You tell Michael to call me!”  The Warriors laughed and there was ease about the group, who were there to get some exercise and have some fun.

I took a lane and assisted with a pre-written workout.  The two soldiers, Keith and Bill asked questions about the workout– technique, drill, kick.  For the first time, I felt like a coach with my stopwatch and telling then “great job” and “pull under your body” as I demonstrated on the pool deck, the most effective and efficient way to swim the freestyle stroke.  After the practice, the swimmers were to break up into lanes to work on different segments of a swimming race: Starts, Flip turns, push-offs.  While I waited for the men in my lane to complete their cool down, a soldier in the next lane named Landon called me over.

 

“Thank you for being here,” he said.  “It means a lot.”  Not knowing how to respond, I said, “It’s my pleasure.  Thank you for all that you’ve done for our country.”  He shrugged it off as if it was nothing and repeated “thank you for being here.”  Landon continued by saying “Please tell your brother, and if you have any interaction with other Olympians or Paralympians, how much it means to us when we hear our National Anthem played and the sight of our flag being raised when they win a medal.”  Landon, who shared that he was holding back tears (as was I) wanted those who compete for our country to know how proud they make the servicemen and women.  “Without your dedication to protecting our freedom, they wouldn’t have the opportunity,” I said.

I walked off the pool deck a few hours later with a heart full of gratitude and a message to carry.  Men and women who gave their lives and limbs to fight for our country were laughing and smiling through their painful stories.   They were cheerful, when they have every right to be mad at their circumstances; they make the best of the situation.  In the midst of life-altering injuries, watching their husbands and wives leave upon their return from combat and overcoming challenges to which many of us would cringe, the men and women on the pool deck were having fun.

The moral of the story is “be happy” and say “thank you” to the men and women who fight for our freedom.  Find strength and gratitude in your accomplishments and actions, because you may not realize just how many people you touch, just by being you.

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