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Warrior Games could become pipeline for Paralympics

By: BRIAN GOMEZ
May 13, 2010
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photo - U.S. Paralympics chief Charlie Huebner (left) and Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek announce the formation of the inaugural Warrior Games in January at the Pentagon. The seven-sport competition, featuring all five military branches, ends Friday in Colorado Springs, with swimming finals and track and field events. Photo by COURTESY OF DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
U.S. Paralympics chief Charlie Huebner (left) and Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek announce the formation of the inaugural Warrior Games in January at the Pentagon. The seven-sport competition, featuring all five military branches, ends Friday in Colorado Springs, with swimming finals and track and field events. Photo by COURTESY OF DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE 

With every fling of an arrow, with every target he hits, with every gold medal that’s hung around his neck, Michael Lukow begins dreaming a little bigger.

He has been a competitive archer the past two years, and he has flirted with qualifying for the Paralympic national team. His scores simply aren’t high enough.

“Very easily,” he said, “I could close that up.”

Lukow wants to shoot at the 2012 Paralympics in London, where U.S. officials envision a team with as much as 15 percent of their athletes being disabled veterans, and he’s doing his best to impress at the Warrior Games, a seven-sport event showcasing 187 injured and ill service members from all five military branches that ends today in Colorado Springs.

Building a pipeline in the military ranks long has been a goal for Colorado Springs-based U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Of its 50 athletes at the last Paralympics, in Vancouver in March, five had military ties, and only one took home any hardware, as the Americans stumbled to a fifth-place finish in the total-medal count.

Unlike the USOC, which often enjoys elaborate feeder systems through most of its deep-pocketed national governing bodies, U.S. Paralympics must search the country for talent, dependent on community programs to develop its stars. And some U.S. athletes suited for 2012 and 2014, in Sochi, Russia, were recently disabled, so their experience is limited.

Tapping the military ranks (the Marines and Army have dominated the inaugural Warrior Games against a smaller Air Force contingent and a combined Navy-Coast Guard squad) would give the U.S. a chance to narrow the gap on China, the winner of the most medals at the last Summer Paralympics, in 2008 in Beijing, and Russia, the winner in Vancouver.

“I’ve seen guys come into our programs, where on Day 1, they’re on the lowest of lows,” said Charlie Huebner, chief of U.S. Paralympics. “And it’s like hitting a good shot in golf – you gain a little confidence. On Day 2, they’re talking trash.”

A 23-year-old sergeant, Lukow, of Alamosa, had his right foot amputated and took loads of shrapnel off his left ankle when his convoy was hit by an improved explosive device in Iraq in 2008. He’s such a good aim in archery, he has applied for the World Class Athlete Program, typically for able-bodied soldiers, and he’ll compete this summer in England.

Winning the recurve competition at the Warrior Games was no surprise for Lukow, who got pointers from Paralympians Joe Bailey and Jeff Fabry. Lukow said a Paralympic trip “would mean a lot, probably more than on the battlefield. On the battlefield, I’m out there with a whole group of people. On the range, it’s me.”

Marine Cpl. Beau Parra, 28, of Prescott, Ariz., also has contemplated making a run at the Paralympics, five years removed from an IED in Iraq that destroyed his left shoulder and caused traumatic brain injury and hearing loss in his left ear. He won the compound event at the Warrior Games, his first archery competition, despite training less than a month.

“This is like a bug,” he said. “It’s getting me. … Shooting and winning and being able to compete against my peers, that was the greatest thing ever. I could get addicted to this.”

For more Olympic coverage, visit www.gazette.com/olympics. Check out our Olympics blog at http://gazetteolympics.freedomblogging.com.

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