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See the performance, not the disability, when Warrior Games come to Tampa

Navy Chief Petty Officer Phil Fong competes for Team SOCOM in the June 2018 Warrior Games indoor-rowing competition at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. [EJ Hersom, Department of Defense]
Published Jun. 15

TAMPA — You'll see the blade of a prosthetic leg, rapidly striking the surface in support of a runner.

You'll see wheelchairs colliding into each other in support of parapalegics.

You'll see amputees swim faster than you ever imagined, and people do more with one arm than some can with two.

But if you only see the technical tools these athletes use in competition, if you see their disabilities instead of their abilities, you won't really see the Department of Defense's Warrior Games when they launch Friday in Tampa Bay.

"They should see us as athletes giving their all," said Navy Chief Petty Officer Phillip Fong, who will compete in shot put, discus, powerlifting, rowing, swimming and wheelchair rugby for Team SOCOM.

"You'll able to see the disability with some people," Fong said. "With some, you won't be able to see the disability. But either way, you'll see people enjoying what they do."

READ MORE: 2019 Warrior Games schedule

These military men and women, more than 300 and some of them still serving in active duty, want you to witness intangibles invisible to the naked eye. The Olympic-style competition celebrates the triumphant spirit of the competitors, the restorative rewards of their participation and the basic principles of sport.

"When they see the injured service members still competing and still racing, look at them for what they're doing and not the position they're in," said Army Master Sgt. George Vera, a Team SOCOM member.

The Warrior Games will display everything people love about sports — drive, will, ambition, adrenaline.

Other than opening and closing ceremonies at Amalie Arena, the adaptive sports competition will be free to the public at a number of venues, including the University of South Florida, the Tampa Convention Center and the Long Aquatic Center in Clearwater.

READ MORE: Tampa is pulling out all stops for the Warrior Games

Yet if you need another reason to attend, beyond the free admission and inspiring performances, consider this: Tampa Bay has its own hometown squad made up of members from U.S. Special Operations Command.

The nation's Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will field teams, and representatives are coming from Australia, Canada, Denmark, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Yet only one Team SOCOM maintains its home at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.

SOCOM strives to weave its way into the fabric of our community. You may see its Para-Commandos land on the 50-yard-line at Raymond James Stadium or its Rappel Team lower from the highest ring at Tropicana Field. They speak at our schools and their kids attend our schools.

READ MORE: Jon Stewart on Tampa's Warrior Games, Gasparilla and whether he'd ever do TV again

Fong now works in SOCOM's Care Coalition after contracting cerebral malaria while serving in Liberia. He spent a year re-learning how to walk and talk and he continues to suffer severe migraines and moments when he randomly passes out.

Still, he's driven to compete, and in the process, he typifies the kind of inspiring stories fans will find at the games. If people come out to root on their hometown squad, he said, it can only enhance the competition.

"Your performance gets a little bit better, you gain a little more strength," said Fong, who heard the cheer of spectators at the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs last year.

"I've never been a pro athlete, but I've imagined being a pro athlete. I think it's the same feeling you would get if you were a pro athlete."

Being on a team also helps participants recapture the camaraderie they enjoyed in their units.

"One thing they'll get to see is that big love we share," said Vera, who will compete in cycling, swimming, track, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby.

"Whether our injuries are visible, or we have PTSD, we're broken. When they see us doing sports, it lets them know that even though we've been injured, we're still the same people out there doing stuff."

He added, "What I always say is I will not let my wheelchair define me as a person."

What does define Vera? He's a husband and a father whose family draws inspiration from his participation in the Warrior Games.

He's also a vessel for the memories of his friend Army 1st Sgt. Andrew McKenna, who lost his life during the same insurgent attack in Afghanistan that left Vera paralyzed from the waist down.

McKenna always shared stories about a Fourth of July parade in his hometown of Bristol, R.I. After Vera, 41, recovered from his injuries, he eventually attended the parade, meeting McKenna's parents and friends. Now he's formed a bond with the "Rhode Island crew" and many will join him at the Warrior Games this week.

"Andrew lives on through us," Vera said. "I tell stories about serving with him in the military, they tell stories about when he was growing up. We keep his memory alive. You only die when people completely stop talking about you."

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow @hoop4you.

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