Warrior Games 2013: Competing 'medicine' for AF wounded warrior

  • Published
  • By Randy Roughton
  • Air Force News Service
Master Sgt. Shawn Schwantes may have been a pleasant surprise for his Air Force Warrior Games coaches during the team's training camp at the U.S. Air Force Academy. But Schwantes fully expected to flourish on the track and with his teammates because he considers sports his most effective medicine.

Representing the Air Force Warrior Games team in men's open 30-kilometer cycling and 1900-meter open track and field is a natural fit because of a strong running background that includes ultra marathons with distances of 26-plus miles.

"It's medication for me," Schwantes said. "I'm completely off my pain meds, primarily because nothing works. I've made the life choice to not stay at home and have self-pity and kind of wither away on a couch, because that's not me. I live with chronic pain every day. But I've chosen to get up, get out, be active and I'm seeing positive results from it."

In January 2012, Schwantes was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, chronic pain that usually develops in an arm or leg after an injury, surgery, stroke or heart attack. The pain is usually considerably more severe than the original injury.

"Because it's very rare, and doctors still don't fully understand it, your mind kind of just goes blank when you hear you've been diagnosed with CRPS," Schwantes said. "You get very worried about what the future's going to be like."

Schwantes began his career in security police and combat arms in 1995 and cross-trained into tactical air control party 15 years later. By the time he showed up for his first TACP duty station at Fort Campbell, Ky., after technical training three years ago, he had a severe stress fracture in his heel and a torn rotator cuff.

"I had a bunionectomy and osteotomy in my right foot in January 2010, and a month after the procedure, I started noticing things didn't look or feel normal," he said. Schwantes, who was recovering from surgery in San Antonio, sent photos of his foot to his physician. His podiatrist at Fort Campbell immediately determined he had CRPS, although they needed a specialist to make the official diagnosis.

At the time of the training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., Schwantes was waiting to hear the results from his appeal of his Medical Evaluation Board's disability rating.

Running, especially at a competition level such as the Warrior Games, gives Schwantes an outlet for coping with stress from his almost 20-year career being in jeopardy to his CRPS.

"I was told you'll never run as fast as you did or as far as you did," he said. "'You'll never upright cycle again.' That was a huge part of my life, and I hate being told you can't do something."

Schwantes' Warrior Games track coaches certainly don't share the opinion that he lost his ability to run at a high level. Capt. Ben Payne, coach for the running events, was not only impressed by Schwantes' running, but also by how he motivated his teammates.

"Shawn was a very talented runner from the very beginning," Payne said. "He pushed himself in any workout I've given him. The altitude has a big effect on long-distance runners, but he's overcome that. I'm excited to see what he does on his own for (the three weeks between the training camp and the Games), and when he shows up for the Warrior Games being fit and ready to compete with the top guys and maybe get a medal for the Air Force."

As much as placing in the Games would mean for Schwantes, it is not what his mind is focused on as he's training for the competition. Instead, he is relishing the relationships he's building with his teammates and the impact it's having on him during this pivotal time in his personal and professional life. Just being around fellow wounded warriors has been inspiring him, even as he awaits the decision on his MED appeal.

"It ignites a fire," Schwantes said. "It is a competition. I get that. I'm here to compete, but that's not my priority. My priority is to be with my teammates who have made the same choice I have. Whatever condition or problem they have, they have similar stories I have of being told they're never going to be able to do these types of things again. Yet, here they are, world-class athletes performing at a high level, and some of them performing better than able-bodied athletes. Just to hang out with them, with the drive and passion they have, is another form of medicine for me."