Big city, big time for Wounded Warrior Games this year
The Wounded Warriors are ready for the spotlight.
For the first time, the group's annual games will take place in a major metropolitan area this year, as Chicago plays host to the 2017 Warrior Games starting on Friday and running through July 8 under the direction of the Department of Defense.
“We wanted to focus on an element that was missing, and that was the spectators,” Navy Capt. Brent Breining told the Illinois Valley Times. “Past venues restricted access. Having it in Chicago puts fans and veteran supporters together. It’s a great way to showcase our Wounded Warriors and show support throughout their lifetime.”
Breining, a Naperville native, has been the director of the Warrior Games for 10 months.
“I graduated from Naperville High School and then went on to the University of Michigan," Breining said. "After that I went into the Navy and spent 25 years as a pilot. My flying tour ended in 2009, and then I was transferred to Washington, D.C. Three years ago I was assigned to help with the Wounded Warrior Games and took over as director a few months ago.”
The games were originally orchestrated by the U.S. Olympic Committee and began in 2010 in Colorado. The Department of Defense took over in 2015.
“The (Olympic committee) wanted to to run the games every four years to coincide with the Paralympics,” Breining said. “We wanted to do it every year.”
The five service branches take turns with planning and hosting the adaptive sporting events -- traditional Olympic events that been customized to allow disabled veterans to participate.
“We have sitting volleyball,” Breining said. “(It) is configured so that you are sitting on your rear and moving around as a six-person team. The net's lowered, too. Swimming and track and field participants use prosthetics. We just follow the Paralympic model.”
This year's games feature 256 athletes, with 40-member teams from the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard. They also include a British team and an Australian group.
“We try to make it equal,” Breining said. “This is the first time the Australians are coming, and they are super excited.”
Over the years, the games have been gaining attention. Blake Sheldon and Kelly Clarkson were the first two celebrities to perform at them, and Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show, has hosted the event twice.
“John hosted at West Point,” Breining said. “He was so struck with what he saw that he wanted to come back. He’s brought ESPN with him, and this year they did a live broadcast of wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball.”
Prince Harry took part in the inaugural event in 2010, after which he started the Invictus Games.
Breining said the games are funded through taxpayers and commercial sponsors, with all proceeds going to ward the events.
“We started scouting about two years out,” he said. “We held a mini-selection committee made up of the Navy and civilians to help find the right site. We hired contractors, planned for food and lodging. It is the largest event the DoD has ever done. “It will be a lifetime memory for the athletes and their families. As a Chicago native, it’s nice to be able to introduce the department and the veterans to my hometown and to honor them with these games.”