For active Army Colonel Danny Dudek, sports are secondary to service.
That’s the mentality he will bring to the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City, where he will compete in his first-ever NVWG with not so much something to prove, but rather, something to learn.
“Sports are secondary to me,” Dudek says. “The National Veterans Wheelchair Games have been on my radar because I want to meet the broader community of veterans in wheelchairs and learn about their life and challenges after the military.”
Dudek understands firsthand the challenges of remaining on active duty with a disability. In 2007, the then-Army Major was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Iraq. In addition to losing his friend and comrade Cpl. Brandon Craig in the blast, Dudek had to face his own life-changing spinal cord injury that left him with little mobility in his legs.
“You have to mourn,” he says. “I didn’t want to accept being an SCI patient who couldn’t use his legs anymore. But then I determined for myself that I would put big goals in front of me and find out if they’re impossible. The thing is, I haven’t found anything impossible yet.”
For Dudek, the first hurdle was remaining on active duty. But by 2009, he was selected as commander of the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he pioneered policy to help injured service members like himself who needed the tools to either remain on active duty or transition into a successful life as a Veteran of the U.S. military. It was in his leadership role that he discovered the value of sports to the rehabilitation of injured soldiers.
By 2012, Dudek moved to the Pentagon to serve as deputy chief of staff at the Army’s Warrior Transition Command. While physically active, Dudek wanted the firsthand experience of what he knew his fellow soldiers and Veterans were relying on to rehabilitate. Just months later, he was off to his first Warrior Games, where he earned one gold and one silver medal in swimming.
“The more active I was, the more I realized things I thought were impossible really weren’t,” says Dudek, who now boasts five gold medals in swimming from two consecutive Warrior Games. “It proved that I could do anything.”
Dudek went on to race in the Marine Corps Marathon, Army Ten-Miler and the Navy-Air Force Half Marathon. He also learned to ski independently, and in 2014, competed in the inaugural Invictus Games in London.
“For all I’ve done in sports and in the military, the wheelchair quickly gets ignored,” he says. “The more you perform, the more you get to perform; the wheelchair isn’t even a factor.”
Having transitioned back to Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington where he hopes to retire, the Army Colonel now serves as the collective training chief of the Army’s I Corps. He knows one day soon he’ll be the one transitioning out of the military into Veteran status, and it’s then that he’s set his sights on some big, personal goals.
“Ninety percent of the disabled community is not physically active, and I don’t believe it’s because of money or venues, it’s participation,” he says. “I want to create something incredible in the Northwest to help grow participation and competition in adaptive sports. The passion I have for adaptive sports has driven me to this, but of course, I have to retire first.”
The 36th NVWG will be a step on the path of the post-retirement goals Dudek has set for himself. It’s also a step to reclaim his personal physical activity lost over the past couple of years due to busy work schedules and other personal demands. At the NVWG, he’ll compete in swimming, track, cycling and triathlon.
“I want to get physically active again,” he says. “But for me, the Games are more about the community than the competition. I’m excited about the possibilities and the people I get to meet.”
Still, amidst much success in both career and sport, Dudek says it all comes back to the true love of his life: his wife, Megan, who was there before his injury and has been his constant every day after.
“All good things are because of my wife,” he says. “I’m able to do so much only because of her support.”
The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature 19 wheelchair sporting events and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City.
Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.