June 10th, 2016 08:58 EST
Army Nurse Hopes to Defend Gold Medal Spot at DoD Warrior Games
As an international lineup of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines take to the track in their wheelchair racing bikes, Army Capt. Kelly Elmlinger dons her gloves, takes a breath and focuses on her mission. As if she and the bike are one, she moves past each competitor until it`s just her against her own time, earning her a gold medal during the Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida, May 10.
Wheelchair racing makes Elmlinger feel like a runner again, she said. She had run the Army 10-Miler, earned her jump wings, run a marathon on Veterans Day in under four hours. She barely missed the qualifying time for the Boston Marathon and was training for a triathlon when she sought medical treatment for a nagging pain in her leg.
In March 2013, Elmlinger was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare soft-tissue tumor, next to the tibia in her lower leg. She worked with her orthopedic oncologist on limb salvage and had nine surgeries. She was treated on the same hospital floor where she once worked as a nurse.
When she received her diagnosis, she said, her first thought was her daughter, Jayden, and then her career. The only thing I cared about after the doctor told me I had cancer was just "Make me a mom,` " Elmlinger said. I didn`t care what they did to my leg. I didn`t care what I had to go through. Jayden is my driving inspiration. She`s why I get up every morning, why I challenge myself, why I continue to set goals and why I want to continue to be a better person. She`s athletic and a bit of a challenge; I feel like I`m raising myself sometimes, but I love her. "
As Elmlinger fought through her recovery as quickly as she could, she learned about adaptive sports through the Fort Sam Houston Warrior Transition Battalion`s Soldier Adaptive Reconditioning Program. She uses a prosthetic on her leg and is able to walk day-to-day, but she can`t run any more. So through Texas Regional Paralympics Sport, she learned about wheelchair racing on the track. Adaptive sports and wheelchair racing helped fill the void running meant to me. I`ve always been a runner, which began at a very early age, and I no longer have the ability to run, " Elmlinger said. Sports have meant more to me than the obvious physical health benefits. It was a way to deal with life stressors in a positive manner and gave me the avenue to sort through the emotions I was feeling. Losing the ability to run and not being able to participate in athletics or any sort of physical activity while going through my illness and treatment process was very difficult for me. "
Adaptive sports have also changed her life, Elmlinger said. I don`t think that I`ll ever come to the point where I`m going to stop saying "Thank you,` because not only has it changed my life, but I`ve got family that`s changed and especially my daughter. " she said.
It`s completely changed the way she looks at things. Adaptive is normal for her, " Elmlinger said. I`ve had friends come up and they`ll say, "You know I`m missing a leg?` or, "You know I`m missing an arm?` and she`ll look at them and say, "What`s your point?` It`s accepted. I would have to say that`s the proudest thing as a mother and a parent. To see from your child how accepting and open minded and nonjudgmental [they are], it`s absolutely amazing. "
In April, Elmlinger made her Boston Marathon dreams a reality. Her grandmother, Mildred, passed away a week before the race, but Elmlinger said her grandmother was her inspiration and the source of her tenacity. Elmlinger also says Mildred would never have forgiven her for missing out on something so important to her.
If you knew my grandmother, you would know the "Competitive, never quit, I`m completely tired for this last race, but gut that out` all comes from my grandmother, " she said. Elmlinger said she teared up as she crossed the finished line in Boston as she remembered Mildred. Granny would not be having it if I did not cross that finish line. "
Elmlinger said she had wished for a better finishing time, but her family was there to see her cross the finish line. She`s qualified for next year`s race, and she wears the Boston jacket as motivation during training.
At the Invictus Games this year, Elmlinger won the gold medal in the women`s 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter and 1,500-meter wheelchair races in her disability category. She also won bronze in women`s swimming for the 50-meter freestyle, 50-meter backstroke and 100-meter freestyle in her disability category.
At the DoD Warrior Games next week, Elmlinger will be competing in track and field and swimming. About 250 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans on teams representing the Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command and the United Kingdom armed forces will participate in eight sporting events: archery, cycling, track and field, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming and wheelchair basketball. The DoD Warrior Games highlight the resilience and spirit of service members, veterans and their families and caregivers.
Elmlinger said that whether she`s at the Department of Defense Warrior Games or at the Invictus Games, the athletes can be competitors one minute and friends the next.
Military adaptive individuals, we have such an underlying bond that is just unspoken, " she said. It makes it very easy to hate you in the moment of competition but then when you`re done, you`re hugging and high-fiving. "
Elmlinger said able-bodied people shouldn`t discount adaptive athletes. We were athletes at a very young age, and that athletic mindset doesn`t leave because you`ve been hurt, you`ve been ill or you have some part of your body that`s not there, that doesn`t work, " she said. I`m here to tell you, I`ve been on both sides ... and the competition is every bit as stiff, Elmlinger said. I live like an athlete. I am an adaptive athlete. We don`t want to be treated any different as a person, as an athlete or as a member of the community. "
Photo Credit: Wikipedia