ORLANDO, Fla., May 13, 2016 —
While the competition throughout the week was fierce at the 2016 Invictus Games held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World here, the athletes said the camaraderie was stronger.
Many of them said they created lifelong friendships with athletes from other countries during the May 8-12 games. Army reservist Staff Sgt. Zed Pitts, for example, said he gained friends and coaches in cycling and running.
Pitts met British army sergeant and cyclist Andrew Perrin at the 2015 Department of Defense Warrior Games and raced against and with him at this year’s Invictus Games.
“I met him at the 2015 Warrior Games. He scored a gold [medal] in his category, and I was in one category under him. He’s kind of been guiding me,” Pitts said. “I look up to him as a superior cyclist. He’s like a semipro back home. He’s received training from like professionals, so it’s pretty cool that he looked at me as a cyclist with a lot of potential. He gives me a lot of guidance and training tips. He reminds me over and over again that I must enjoy the sport if I want to go far.”
Pitts said Perrin was encouraging him throughout the time trial and criterium competitions here May 9, even though they were racing each other. When Pitts crashed, Perrin went back to check on him.
“Me and Zed, we get along really well,” said Perrin, who earned a gold medal in the time trial and criterium at the Invictus Games. “We make good friends. We communicate all the time.”
Pitts has also made friends with 1st Sgt. Naef Adebahr of the German army, who earned the the 200-meter bronze medal in track and field.
“The camaraderie is unbelievable here,” Adebahr said. “Everyone here helps the others, and that’s very good. Zed is a beautiful person. He inspired me. We help each other out.”
Medically retired Army Sgt. Monica “Mo” Southall said she loves the camaraderie at the Invictus Games. As she was leaving the medal podium from track and field with competitor 1st Maj. Cpl. Pellegrina Caputo of the Italian army, Caputo asked her if they could switch jerseys.
Caputo, who earned a gold medal in shot put in her disability category, said she wanted to do it because “America is like a big family to Italians, and I wanted to keep this bond of friendship.”
This was Caputo’s first Invictus Games, and she beat her own record. “Today’s not just about the medal, but about beating my own previous record,” she said. “I’m very happy. I cried.”
Caputo said she enjoyed the camaraderie throughout the week. “I’m very moved, and have bonded with athletes from all over the world. I’ve loved the atmosphere in the village and in the field,” she said.
Southall said the camaraderie was just like it was in London during her first Invictus Games in 2014. “They just carried it over here to Orlando,” she said. “Everybody’s been so friendly and so nice -- just like in London. I love that I can get along with people who are from other nations who may have the same issues as me. We’re just one big family here.”
During the women’s wheelchair races, Ulfat Zwiri, a government employee from Jordan, had trouble with her wheelchair. But as she finished, athletes from other countries came back to encourage her and finish with her. Her father was proud of her.
“I’m very happy she managed to finish the race with high morale and confidence. The Invictus Games have changed her completely,” Yaseen Ahmad Salem Alzwiri said of his daughter. “She’s very positive. It’s changed her remarkably. These games are a wonderful vehicle for raising the morale of soldiers and for creating bonds of friendship between all the different nations.”
Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger said she was impressed with Zwiri and felt bad that when she noticed Zwiri didn’t have a pair of racing gloves, she didn’t have an extra pair to give her.
“I give her all the credit in the world,” Elmlinger said. “That was the first time she had gotten in a wheelchair. She didn’t have racing gloves, and for her to put herself out there to start and to finish, it doesn’t matter her time. It’s amazing for her to make this journey and for her to put herself out there like that. That takes a strong individual.”
Elmlinger said she enjoys the competition and the camaraderie. “With military adaptive individuals, we have this underlying bond that’s just unspoken,” she said. “It makes it very easy to hate you in the moment of competition, but when you’re done, you’re hugging and high-fiving.”
Team USA captain medically retired Army Capt. Will Reynolds said most of the athletes make lifelong friends with their competitors at the Invictus Games.
“You have this network of individuals who you can rely on for recovery tips and athletic training tips,” he said. “It’s just like something that never goes away. This group of people is always going to be connected now. The camaraderie is pretty strong.”
Air Force Master Sgt. Israel “DT” Del Toro said he has a blast hanging out with athletes from different nations. “I’ve known a lot of them from either the Warrior Games or the previous Invictus Games, and to see them again is great. I love joking with them,” he said.
Medically retired Marine Corps Cpl. Anthony McDaniel said he enjoys how everyone gets along.
“Whether we’re on the court or on the field, it’s all competition, but it’s good competition. When we’re off, it’s all love,” he said. “Everybody’s getting along. Everybody’s networking, communicating and just supporting each other -- regardless of whether you finished first, finished last or whether you’ve never done this sport before. It’s all about the love of the sport, and the love of the people who are here.”
(Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDoDNews)