QUANTICO, Va. — Two wheelchairs crashed into each other with a screech, and Marine Sgt. Alex Nguyen toppled over in his. The amputee and combat engineer had broken up a scoring play in a game of wheelchair basketball, but lost his balance in the process.
It was an eye-opening introduction to the Warrior Games, an annual athletic competition among wounded service members and veterans that begins Friday. Organized by the Defense Department, it pits hundreds of athletes against one another in eight sports, a celebration of determination and athleticism for veterans and service members who have been seriously injured or wounded since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The opening ceremony is at 11 a.m. Friday at the National Museum of the Marine Corps near Quantico. Like the rest of the events, it is open to the public.
I was part of a media contingent invited Thursday to Quantico to not only meet with the Marine Corps wheelchair basketball team, but compete with it. The Marines wanted to not merely talk about the Warrior Games, but show us a bit of their world in the process.
As a former high school hoopster who still plays and coaches beer-league sports, it was an offer I couldn’t resist. I had a lot of questions: How fast was the game? How easy was it to score? How hard were the collisions? How easy was it to flip over in a chair? Was it fun?
The staff introduced us to the basics before we played. I sat down, strapped on a seat belt and immediately noticed the limitations. Knocking down 20-foot 3-pointers is usually easy enough for me, but without my legs I struggled to hit even a 15-foot free throw. It also was harder to get open, cut to the hoop or post up on offense, and it was all but impossible to catch a pass that was more than a foot or two off target.
“Chair skills” also are needed — the ability to stop on a dime, maneuver around opponents and pick up a basketball on the ground while still moving and without crashing. I nearly did so the first time trying, after the ball rolled straight underneath and my upper body lurched forward. The trick: pin the ball to a wheel alongside you and wait for it to come around.
“That’s one of the first things they tell you to do,” Nguyen later told me, perhaps 30 minutes after I nearly teetered over. “Don’t pick it up from the front.”
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Perhaps seeing how bad the media looked while warming up, the Marines decided to split up the teams before we scrimmaged full court. Using impressive upper-body strength and specialized chairs that were in some cases mounted with bicycles tires, they zipped around the court, even banking in layups at close to full speed. The Marines sported standard close-cropped haircuts and tattoos, while some of the veterans sported mohawks.
I took two shots in about 10 minutes of play: one from about six feet that hit near the top of the backboard and another that clanked off the rim from about 10. There will be no Warrior Games glory for me this year.
We suspended play when Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, the head of Marine Corps Installations East and the commander of Task Forces Warrior Games, arrived. He, too, strapped on a chair for the first time and marveled at the difficulty in getting around.
“This is hard!” he said, wheeling his chair around the other Marines.
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The athletes teased Ayala that his chair was going to lean to one side — a wisecrack reference to the full rack of ribbons he wears on his chest as a seasoned senior officer.
The general said in an interview that the Warrior Games will include teams from each of the services, U.S. Special Operations Command and Britain, which is sending about 40 military athletes. That continues a growing relationship spawned in 2013, when Prince Harry attended the Warrior Games in Colorado Springs and then launched Britain’s version, the Invictus Games, the following year.
“The turning is probably the hardest part,” Ayala said of playing with the Marines. “It’s amazing the way they handle the ball. It shows you just how adaptive they are.”
Nguyen, the wounded warrior who dumped his wheelchair early in the morning, suffered numerous broken bones in his legs and feet in 2011 when a mine-resistant truck he was traveling in hit a 250-pound improvised explosive device near Sangin, Afghanistan, he said. The pain in his right leg eventually was too much to bear, and doctors amputated the limb.
Nguyen said he is close to leaving the Marine Corps and is considering attending the University of Nebraska at Lincoln next year. He shrugged off his spill.
“I leaned forward and then I clipped the other chair,” he said. Then he smiled. “I stopped the scoring play. It’s fun.”
To learn more about the Warrior Games or the schedule of events, go to defense.gov/warriorgames.