Records fall as Warrior Games in Tampa draw most athletes, biggest crowds

Actor Jon Stewart is presented with a photo of Tampa along with coins from all participating units of the 2019 Warrior Games as a token of appreciation for his work with wounded veterans and first responders. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Actor Jon Stewart is presented with a photo of Tampa along with coins from all participating units of the 2019 Warrior Games as a token of appreciation for his work with wounded veterans and first responders. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published June 30, 2019

Children meandered through crowds collecting autographs. Volunteers ran across courts waving military branch flags. A wheelchair rugby player got hit so hard at just the right angle that he flipped onto his back.

For Army Col. Cary Harbaugh, director of the 2019 Department of Defense Warrior Games, all these signs pointed to a mission accomplished.

Tampa's turn at hosting the Paralympic-style competition for wounded, ill and injured service members,proved to be a successful one, breaking several Warrior Games records — including the most athletes, the most featured sports, the most visiting teams and the biggest public turnout with thousands showing up across the games' 10-day span.

"Best I've ever seen in a Warrior Games when it comes to public turnout," Harbaugh said. "I feel very, very satisfied."

The Department of Defense had been concerned about the games' sustainability because they used to be held on military bases, where costly event space had to be built from scratch to host the various sports, Harbaugh said.

When it became U.S. Special Operations Command's turn to host the games this year, the command made it a personal goal to provide a new cost-effective model by co-hosting with the Tampa community, he added. Without going into specific figures, Harbaugh noted that the games came in well under budget thanks to Tampa's generous sponsorships.

Co-hosting with the city offered another benefit: accessibility.

Athletes and their families were able to easily walk or shuttle-ride to and from their hotels around Amalie Arena and the Tampa Convention Center, which held the majority of the sporting events. Downtown Tampa's restaurants and Riverwalk areas were well within reach and local residents made visiting families feel welcome.

"We are a patriotic city," said Tampa City Councilman Luis Viera, who regularly popped in to watch the games and interact with the athletes.

As Harbaugh roamed the second floor of the Convention Center on Friday, stopping every now and then to check in on how coordination was going, he smiled at each athlete he saw walking or rolling around him.

There was a sense of personal pride in making sure the games run by SOCom were among the best yet.

When pressed on what it was all really about, Harbaugh would point to someone like Stuart DiPaolo.

DiPaolo, 33, a Marine Staff Sgt., was on a training course a few years back when his all-terrain vehicle rolled over, breaking every bone in his face, severing his left eye, and paralyzing the left side of his body.

He had to re-learn how to speak, eat, and move on his own, let alone manage to swing a golf club or shooting a distant target the size of a dime, said Michelline DiPaolo, 30, his wife.

Yet on Friday, DiPaolo sat in his chair, hand on the trigger, right eye focused on the bullseye, as he took his shot in the shooting finals.

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"I feel really blessed to still be here," DiPaolo said, his wife and young daughters cheering him on.

For active duty Army Staff Sgt. Lauren Montoya, 28, adaptive sports and competitions like the Warrior Games are the true form of recovery beyond any physical or occupational therapy.

Montoya was riding in a truck in Afghanistan in 2014 when it rolled over an improvised explosive device. She lost her left leg as a result.

While the goal of returning to service pushed her forward, it was adaptive sports like track that offered a more holistic feeling of accomplishment and self-purpose.

"It was really hard for me to be okay with not being as fast as I was before my injury," Montoya said.

This year, she felt an extra sense of pride in being one of the five women competing for team Special Operations Command. Often, she said, it's only one or two.

"Oftentimes people don't realize that women are also part of the special operations community," she said.

Physical wounds like those DiPaolo and Montoya bear weren't the only ones in evidence at the games.

Several athletes, including Pvt. Ryan Roberts of the Australian Army, were pushing through post traumatic stress disorder. Sports like wheelchair rugby, in which Roberts competed, offer a sense of community that helps service members feel that they have a goal to live for and that they are not forgotten, Roberts said.

It's why he and so many other wounded warriors expressed gratitude all last week.

Harbaugh, for his part, is grateful for a number of things — the athletes who showed their "warrior hearts" across the competition, the city's support, fellow coordinators' assistance, and a successful run that marks the end of his military career.

After beginning his service at 19, Harbaugh, 60, who directs Special Operations Command's Warrior Care Program, is set to retire after the games.

"I can't think of a better way to go out," he said.

Contact Ileana Najarro at Follow @IleanaNajarro.