COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Active and retired veterans from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and U.S. Special Operations Command met at Fort Carson, Colo., Sept. 29, for an all-day event of cycling during Warrior Games 2014 in Colorado Springs.
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Nathan Cruz, a USSOCOM team member, said the race helped mark a milestone in his recovery.
“This race today means a lot to me,” said Cruz. “As of yesterday [Sept. 27], it’s been six years since the day I was injured. After many surgeries, and years of rehab, I chose a regular [upright] bike for this race.”
Cruz sustained injuries from both a jump mission and a vehicle accident which left him with a shattered femur and hip, injured back and traumatic brain injury. He uses both a wheelchair and a cane to get around, although he struggles with balance and movements on his feet.
“The only problem I have with my balance is if I go up hills,” Cruz revealed while reflecting on the length and angle of the steep hill toward the end of the race course. “I cannot stand [like other people] when pedaling, I have to stay in the saddle. If I stand, I will fall.”
Cruz rode a hand cycle for about three years after he learned about the sport from the USSOCOM Care Coalition’s Adaptive Sports Program. Adaptive sports are intended for people with disabilities and are modified to allow the athletes to participate. They competed, from Sept. 28 to Oct. 4, in archery, cycling, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, shooting, track and field, and swimming.
“I’ve been part of the Care Coalition’s Adaptive Sports Program from the very beginning [of my injury],” said Cruz. “It played a big part in my recovery - not only my physical recovery, but my mental recovery also.”
Although he still meets the criteria to continue racing on a hand cycle, Cruz decided to challenge himself and began training on an upright bicycle about eight months ago. He gave his hand cycle to longtime friend and current riding partner, retired Army Sgt. Edwin Quiros-Ortiz, who is also a USSOCOM team member and suffered similar injuries during a parachute training jump.
“I used to be a recreational rider,” said Quiros-Ortiz. “I just started riding [hand cycles competitively] thanks to my ‘brother’ Nathan Cruz. He’s the one who got me into biking.”
Cruz and Quiros-Ortiz have been through a lot together. Since they first became friends in 2000 during the Army’s Advanced Individual Training at Fort Eustis, Va., the two Puerto Rico natives have completed more than six deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan together.
Cruz was medically retired in 2010 and Quiros-Ortiz in 2011. Cruz helps train his friend in hand cycling, riding up to 200 miles a week as part of each other’s recovery plan. Even Quiros-Ortiz’ wife and daughter join in, keeping the two veterans motivated.
“Family members are very important when it comes to supporting soldiers. In my case I didn’t have that,” said Cruz. “I went through a divorce when I was injured and family members from my unit and the Care Coalition took over to make up for my separation with my wife.”
“During my entire participation with this program I have created a new family, which is all the members of the CCRP [Care Coalition Recovery Program] and the athletic program for the Care Coalition,” said Cruz.
By the day’s end, Quiros-Ortiz made his friend Cruz, who helped coach him in hand cycling, proud by bringing home a bronze medal for the USSOCOM team. In all, SOCOM went home with 22 medals: six gold, six silver, and 10 bronze.
Two-hundred wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans competed throughout the six days of competition in the fifth annual Warrior Games. The Warrior Games is intended to promote athletic reconditioning of wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans by encouraging participation in physical and cognitive activities, inspiring physical fitness and encouraging new opportunities for growth and achievement.