Paralyzed Sailor Looks for Medal Trifecta at Warrior Games

Medalists in the 2015 DoD Warrior Games Cycling competition are acknowledged during the Awards Ceremony at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., June 21, 2015. Explosive Ordnance Disposal Senior Chief Austin Reese (right) won silver in hand cycling. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Diana Sims/Released

Medalists in the 2015 DoD Warrior Games Cycling competition are acknowledged during the Awards Ceremony at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., June 21, 2015. Explosive Ordnance Disposal Senior Chief Austin Reese (right) won silver in hand cycling. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Diana Sims/Released

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

The Department of Defense Warrior Games are a source of physical and mental growth for many wounded military members, including Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Austin Reese, who has made a splash in at least one event so far this year.

Reese, 32, of Bowie, Maryland, spent the past 13 years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. At some point he transferred to an air operations department where, as an experienced skydiver, he spent much of his time teaching his peers how to use military freefall as a tactical insertion method.

Explosive Ordnance Disposal Senior Chief Austin Reese (left) and another athlete begin a practice run on their racing wheelchairs during the Wounded Warrior Navy Trials in 2014. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Erik Wehnes/Released

Explosive Ordnance Disposal Senior Chief Austin Reese (left) and another athlete begin a practice run on their racing wheelchairs during the Wounded Warrior Navy Trials in 2014. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Erik Wehnes/Released

Reese has jumped more than 2,000 times in his career, which included three tours of duty in Iraq. It was his last jump during an off-duty weekend training event in September 2013 where a slight miscalculation changed everything.

“It was a jump I had done numerous times before. I had a miscalculation in my altitude. By the time I realized that I was a little lower than I should have been, I was able to make sure I didn’t hit the ground with my face at about 80-85 mph, but I hit my backside at about 65 mph,” he said.

The accident caused a spinal cord injury that led to several surgeries and rehab. Doctors at first thought he would be back up and walking.

“Unfortunately, it didn’t progress that way,” he said. “I was and am still able to use a rolling walker some, but I haven’t been able to progress to walking on my own.”

Reese said paralysis was at first a bitter pill to swallow, but participating in the Warrior Games has helped, largely due to those around him who are in similar situations.

“I think, ‘Well, this isn’t the best situation I could be in, but it’s not the worst, either,'” he said. “There’s still hope that I can walk on my own again.”

Cyclists await the start of competition during the 2015 DoD Warrior Games at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Diana Sims

Cyclists await the start of competition during the 2015 DoD Warrior Games at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Diana Sims

Reese tried out for the 2014 Warrior Games through the urging of Navy Safe Harbor, and he ended up making the team. Unfortunately, a setback kept him from competing.

“I had to have an unplanned surgery before the games, so I was taken out of that,” he said.

But this year is a different story. Reese made the team again and competed this past weekend in the hand cycling competition, where he won a silver medal. He’s also set to do the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle and the relay in the swimming competition, as well as some track and field events.

“I used to be a pretty decent swimmer, but now, not having use of my lower body has proved to be such a challenge, and I like the challenge of it,” Reese said.

The games are a huge part of his emotional healing.

“I get a lot of emotional support,” Reese said. “If I come across any hurdles, the team is there to help out.”

That aspect of the competition is one of the biggest components of his success.

Supporters gather and wave signs for participants in the cycling competition of the 2015 DoD Warrior Games. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Diana Sims/Released

Supporters gather and wave signs for participants in the cycling competition of the 2015 DoD Warrior Games. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Diana Sims/Released

“Mentally, there’s a lot of time in practice where you just don’t think you can go any further, and they’re there to push you further and cheer you on,” he said. “You don’t want to let your team down. You want to do the best you can for them, so you push just that much harder in the competition.”

So what’s next for this father of two after the games are done? He just recently went through a medical board and is set to retire July 27.

“For the next little while, I think I’m just going to be a stay-at-home dad and hang out with my kids,” Reese said.

And he’s certainly not mad at the sport that cost him his ability to walk.

“Every time I think about jumping — it’s awesome, and I still recommend everybody try it at least once in their life,” he said.

His positivity and perseverance are a good example for anyone to follow. Good luck to him in the rest of the competition! To get details on all Warrior Games activities, including the latest competition results, click here.

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