When Eliny Rodriguez began her powerlifting program, she couldn’t press 15 pounds over her head. Today she is benching 90 pounds and that’s “not even close to what I am going to be doing in September.”

Furthermore, she has her sights on the global Invictus Games next year.

Rodriguez, recently retired from the Marine Corps for medical reasons after 15 years, is one of 45 wounded, injured and ill Marines training for their own version of the Olympics/Paralympics: the Warrior Games.

“The whole Marine concept is that you have to be physically fit at all times,” the veteran said. “Unfortunately sometimes because of things that happen medically, you [regress] a little bit.”

The Department of Defense 2021 Warrior Games will be held Sept. 12-22 at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

The annual event, first held in 2010, celebrates the resiliency and dedication of wounded, ill and injured active-duty and veteran U.S. military service members. 

Hundreds of military athletes, including those from allied nations, will compete in adaptive sport events such as wheelchair basketball, cycling, indoor rowing, track and field, archery, golf, sitting volleyball, powerlifting, shooting and wheelchair rugby.

Athletes will represent the Army, Navy and Coast Guard, Marines, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command and service members from the nations of Georgia and Ukraine.

U.S. military branches are sending 45 members each. This week, the Marines who excelled in March trials were selected to represent Team Marine Corps and attended a camp at Camp Pendleton to hone their skills in multiple sports. 

“It’s kind of like therapy,” said Rodriquez, who served in the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, serving in Kuwait, Dubai, Bahrain and Israel. “This gives you a sense of purpose because sometimes you sort of lose yourself, you know, since you can’t do what you have been doing in the Marine Corps. 

“This gives you the little boost to remind you that you still got it in you.”

Once at the peak of fitness, these military athletes now muster determination and courage off the battlefield to find – often to their surprise — that they can achieve more than what they thought. 

They are transitioning from being a victim of a terrible event to discovering mental and physical strength to adapt to their new normal. 

Coach Erica Wheeler says it’s “the power of sport to change lives and improve the quality of their lives.”

Some have been wounded in a war, lost limbs in accidents, are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or struggling with disease, such as cancer.

“I kind of watch them come back to life,” said L.J. Belsito, a powerlifting coach for the Marine Corps since 2015.

“I look at their eyes when they come in, especially some of the new participants, and they almost seem defeated because at some point in their journey, someone has told them that they would never be able to do this again,” said Belsito, a 16-time world champion in powerlifting and Olympic lifting.

“What we give back to them is hope,” she said.

Gym is where the service members get their demons out, Belsito said. They feel safe and comfortable, where they can reach out for help.

“Whatever their traumas have been and whatever they have gone through, I try to be there for them if they want to talk, and most of them will open up, but it’s on their terms,” said the nurse and coach who is active duty with the U.S. Public Health Service at Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.

Her first interaction with them is a hug. 

While some service members have lost limbs, all of them have been removed from their units — their support group.

“You get that bond, and we give back that sense of comaraderie and troop that they lost. It’s huge for them,” said Belsito, who owns a private gym — Iron-Strength Training Education & Performance — in Maryland near Walter Reed.

Upon entering the program, many of the military members have been drinking and sleeping poorly. They look drained and are struggling.

Through the recovery program, those issues are addressed.

“I don’t want them to revert back to unhealthy habits or self-harm or anything like that,” said the 64-year-old coach.

After being in the program with coaches and a support system, they look like a completely different human being, Belsito said, adding: “They’re healthy. They’re happy. They’re smiling and their eyes are bright. And they have hope and ambitions and dreams of doing things that they never thought they could do.”

At the Tokyo Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles spotlighted mental health in sports, and Belsito said psychological issues loom large in the Warrior Games training.

While service members and veterans taking their own lives has been a problem throughout the military, Belsito said the training program has seen no suicide attempts or negative outcomes. 

“So I take that as a win,” she said. “We just need to keep doing more of that.” 

One athlete who trains with Belsito at Walter Reed, Lance Cpl. K.C. Higer, lifted weights and was on his high school wrestling team.

Higer lost his right hand while working on his vehicle, and now benches more than 254 pounds with the help of a prosthesis.

“You come into the gym and you get better every day as long as you are consistent and you are trying. That’s all that matters,” said Higer who plans to compete in powerlifting, rowing, swimming, track and wheelchair rugby.

“The gym is my sanctuary,” said the 20-year-old. “This is the place that I come to relieve stress. Kind of be by myself. I’m just trying to get back to where I was prior to my injury” in July 2020, he said. “Coaches have helped me start to get on the path to where I was before.”

Concluded Higer: “I was determined. I just had sheer will to get back to being active. I wanted to prove that I am still as able-bodied as possible.” 

Marine Master Sgt. Johnathan Rose, operations chief for the Wounded Warrior Regiment, said the team sports are the most popular.

“The biggest advantage for team sports is camaraderie” said Rose, a recovering program member in 2010-13 after being badly wounded by an IED blast in Afghanistan.

“These Marines and sailors have been pulled from their unit with people they know,” he said. “Now they are stuck in a unit where they don’t know anybody.” 

Back home, he said, they have no bases nearby. 

“To come back here and be around other Marines, being around people they know from last year or the year before, it gives them a feeling, ‘My life is not that bad. I still have my brethren behind me who can help me out,’” Rose said.

Some athletes resume sports from their past. Many try new ones.

“As Marines, we are always trying to be the pointed part of the spear,” Rose said. “They come out and say, ‘Maybe I can do that.’ And it gets in their heads now as Marines: We’re gonna do it, and do it and do it until we are successful. Some pick up new sports they may not be able to do. Marines always have to adapt and overcome.”

The regiment’s motto is ETIAM IN PUGNA, meaning “still in the fight.” (Their name is trademarked, in fact.)

Some members have been able to get off some of their medication, he said.

It sometimes takes years for service members to be cleared for athletic participation after their trauma, Rose said. The Warrior Games are the culminating event for those in recovery.

About 60% of the athletes on the Marines team are active duty — the rest are veterans.

Navy Wounded Warrior hosted the 2021 Navy Team Trials virtually, March 22-May 14. Athletes, including active-duty and veteran sailors and Coast Guardsmen from across the country, competed for a place on Team Navy 2021.

Team Navy comprises 45 primary and one alternate athletes, including a combination of active-duty and veteran sailors and Coast Guardsmen. 2021 They train at Port Hueneme in Ventura County.

“I get goosebumps every time,” coach Wheeler said of working with the military athletes. “I’m just in awe of them.” 

“To be a part of this process to see them improve the quality of their lives, their health, learn a new skill and the smiles on their faces is the absolute best,” said Wheeler, who also is throws coach for the U.S. Paralympic team and works at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.

She helps two athletes selected for the Ultimate Champion competition at the Warrior Games, including Staff Sgt. Robert Dominguez — taking part in archery, shooting, rowing, swimming, shot put, 100-meter dash and powerlifting.

Dominguez is a past champion in that competition.

“The best thing for me as a coach is just to see the smile on their face, to see them get excited, to have them try something new and see them succeed,” said Wheeler, who leaves Sunday for Tokyo and the Paralympic Games. “That’s the best feeling in the world.”

With their military background, they are no strangers to working hard and just pushing themselves to the limit, she said, and all of that transfers to sports.  

In the pool, Capt. Thomas Benge, 36, practiced his starts.

Benge, a below-the-knee amputee, swam in his youth while growing up in Phoenix.

“To be able to figure out how to do that in this adaptive state … has allowed me to move on,” he said. “’I’m not sitting here dwelling on my injury as much, worried about how I am going to be moving forward in my life.” 

Benge considers himself just as capable. 

“Mentally, I can persevere and overcome that and I can move on and challenge other things in my life,” said the military athlete  in recovery since 2018 when he was injured in a motorcycle accident.

“If I didn’t have this ability to come here and compete like this and have the coaches that are so great with these adaptive sports, I’d probably still be in my own headspace trying to just motivate myself to go about my day,”  he said.

Benge’s favorite sport is cycling. He said he loves being on two wheels, being in almost a state of meditation.

The Marine, who was medically approved to be fit to return to full duty, will compete in the pool in freestyle 100, 50 and 4×50 relay.

“It’s a huge privilege,” he said.

Asked where he would be without the program, Benge said: “I couldn’t tell you. And I hate to even think where I would be.”

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