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The Warrior Games are coming

Army Staff Sgt. Lauren Montoya, center, participates in a wheelchair basketball game during the Department of Defense Warrior Games preview Thursday at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park in Tampa. Wheelchair basketball is one of a number of competitive sports in the Department of Defense Warrior Games Tampa Bay event scheduled for June.[OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Mar. 14

TAMPA — After he was blown off a roof in Afghanistan by a Taliban mortar, Jarrid Collins suffered in pain until doctors finally concluded they would have to remove his left leg below the knee.

Collins, 42, who retired as a first sergeant in December after 23 years as an Army Green Beret, didn't spend much time feeling sorry for himself. In three months, he entered a triathalon. He ran a half-marathon three months later and a full marathon six months after that.

In 100 days, Collins, who now lives in Land O' Lakes, expects to be one of 300 wounded, ill and injured troops and veterans from the U.S. and five partner nations to compete in the Department of Defense Warrior Games. The event is being hosted in the Tampa Bay area by U.S. Special Operations Command. It opens June 21 and runs for 10 days.

The athletes will compete in teams representing the four services and SOCom and will square off in 14 events, including archery, wheelchair basketball, cycling, track and field and swimming. The venues include Amalie Arena, the University of South Florida, the Tampa Convention Center and the Long Center in Clearwater. Cycling events will take place on Bayshore Boulevard.

Collins, who competed in track, cycling, rowing and seated volleyball when the games were held at the Air Force Academy last year, said adaptive sports has vastly improved his life.

"In our community and in the military, everyone is hyper-competitive," he said shortly before the Special Ops Paracommando parachute team landed Thursday at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park to kick off the 100-day rollout for the event.

Adaptive sports such as the Warrior Games, he said, "has given back that ability to compete and that ability to have physical output. It's life-changing."

Navy SEAL Cmdr Clay Pendergrass, 47, said adaptive sports have helped him reestablish connections lost to injury, pain and recovery.

Pendergrass, who is stationed at SOCom, knows a lot of each.

Injuries accumulated over a 29-year career have forced him to undergo nearly two-dozen surgeries. During a conversation, he pointed to his many scars.

After eight or nine deployments and the ensuing injuries, Pendergrass said he was in a constant fight-or-flight mode. Adaptive sports, he said, helped turn him around.

"What adaptive sports does is help people back to the parasympathetic, where they start having a human connection again,'' Pendergrass said.

Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, the current commander of SOCom, set the wheels in motions to bring the games to Tampa. But he retires at the end of the month and will watch the games as a spectator.

As an officer in charge of more than 8,000 men and women stationed in more than 100 countries, the games have a special meaning for Thomas.

"Inspirational is kind of an understatement," he said, pointing to the example of George Vera, 41, a Green Beret now living in Land O' Lakes who was paralyzed after rescuing fellow troops during a Taliban attack in 2015.

"He'll tell you he struggled for a while figuring out what he was going to do with the rest of his life," Thomas said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "And I've watched him through this venue completely recalibrate himself and now he's thriving. He is just an example of what these alternative sports venues mean to our wounded and injured."

In addition to Jon Stewart as the master of ceremonies and an as-yet-unnamed "A-list" entertainer performing at the opening and closing events at Amalie Arena, folks in the Tampa Bay area will get a chance to see that kind of inspiring performance in action.

"They're just going to have the opportunity to experience something extremely unique," said Army Staff Sgt. Lauren Montoya, 27, who lost her left leg and suffered a traumatic brain injury after a 2014 bomb blast in Afghanistan. She hopes to compete in the games.

"It's just really cool to see folks able to continue training and push their bodies,'' she said.

For more information, go to DODWarriorGames.com.

Contact Howard Altman at haltman@tampabay.com or (813-225-3112 . Follow @haltman.

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