After what felt like an eternity, I finally walk off the plane and can already feel the brisk, cool Colorado air. After two previous years of doing this, you'd think I'd be used to it by now, but every time, it's been revitalizing and refreshing. During the flight and the days leading up to the trip, I was nervous, but once my feet set foot onto the gate, I was focused and determined to take the best photos I ever have of the Warrior Games.
I look forward to it every year like a child the morning of Christmas. Since working with the United States Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment for over two-and-a-half years, I never tire of seeing the motivation and spirit these Marines have. It's uplifting and inspiring, but those feelings are even more intensified during the Games. I have the fortune of being around the athletes a few months prior at the Marine Corps Trials, which is the preliminaries and precursor to the Warrior Games, but it doesn't compare to the full-fledged event that the USOC puts on each year.
For those who may be a bit unfamiliar, the Warrior Games is a Paralympic-style event that pits the different branches of the US military, as well as the British Armed Forces, against one another in a variety of competitions. Athletes battle it out in cycling, wheelchair basketball, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field, archery, and shooting, with the branch that performs the best throughout the competition winning the Chairman's Cup. For the three years that the Warrior Games have been held, the Marine Corps has won the Chairman's Cup each time, and this year, they would be defending it once again in an attempt to make it a four-peat.
The problem with events like this is that I can never truly express how I was feeling or what went on through words. Excited. Exhausted. Angered. Annoyed. Rejoiced. Impassioned. Burnt-out. Humbled. Celebratory. Proud.
So, rather than get into it with a lot of words, I figured I would highlight some of my favorite shots from the 2013 Warrior Games (and believe me, even with this many photos, I took well over 4,500 photos, so consider yourself fortunate). And for those who actually WANT to read words written by me (psychos), I'll leave that for the end so those with short attention spans can carry on.
How do I even put the Warrior Games experience into words? Maybe it's noting that this event goes beyond the week-long competition itself. Maybe it's pointing out that it's about the camaraderie more than it is about the medals. Don't get me wrong, I'm beyond thrilled and ecstatic that the Marines won it for a fourth-consecutive time. But this trip was even more special to me than before, and I took away from it more than just photos; I have stronger relationships and friendships than I've ever amassed upon departing.
To get the technical parts out of the way, I came guns a-blazing and ready to dominate. I was tired of having excuses about how my photos were turning out, so I made sure I brought my A game to Colorado. I was loaded: a Canon 5D Mark III, a Canon 7D as my back-up (and rarely used), a 24-70mm f/2.8 II, a 70-200mm f/2.8 IS II USM, and even a GoPro HERO3 Black Edition with a ton of accessories. I was NOT going to let my equipment be my weakness this time. But what I discovered was that there was a much more important realization I had to make in order to achieve the results I wanted.
My intention isn't to brag, but I can honestly stare this computer monitor in its face and type out with full disclosure that these were easily the best photos I've ever managed to take. And I can honestly tell you that it's not because of my equipment. I mean, I'm not going to kid you, the Canon 5D Mark III was a lifesaver. However, my photos were the best because this time, I had a different agenda than trying to take the most technically-solid photos; I went into this year's Warrior Games trying to get the most passion and emotion out of each photo.
Because this was my third Warrior Games, I knew what to expect, where to go to achieve the shots I wanted, and how to work around the inevitable wrenches the US Olympic Committee would attempt to throw at me. I knew where all the photographers were going to want to be, and thus, where I wanted to be instead. I didn't know that the British press would be, for a lack of a better term, a bunch of entitled assholes, yet this wasn't the first time I've ever worked with those sorts, and so I knew how to get around their douchebaggery and achieve greatness.
The difference is that I was more invested in this year's Games. I knew the athletes on a more personal level, and if I didn't, I made sure I did. I knew some of the coaches that have been around the Marines in previous years; I made sure I knew each one individually and personally this year. As a result, I got some of my favorite shots I have ever taken. I was more invested in the end result. In previous years, my goal was to make technically-solid shots that would be better than everyone else's photos. This year, I wanted to make sure each athlete and their family and friends were proud of them and their achievements.
I realized something when I finally became honest with myself: this year, it wasn't about me; it was about the Marines.
I've been fooling myself over the years. With everything I've shot, I've been determined to make the client happy by making sure I was at my best. I wanted to make sure everything about the photo was as close to perfect as I could make it. And with better gear, my shots were going to be. Except the one thing that I was missing was that I was losing sight of what the photos were all about. They weren't about being perfect. They never should have been. The photos for something like The Warrior Games should be about what these Marines have overcome. To have gone through so much in their life and still come out on top to be the best they can be should be at the forefront of every photo I take. Being honest with myself, only until these games did I finally do that.
I'm looking at other photographer's photos, and even my own from the previous two years, and I notice something that this year's photos have that those others lack: a soul. They, like me in previous years, are trying too hard to get the shot exactly right. It's got to be sharp, precise, with little-to-no motion blur or noise. I look at what I took this year and love seeing the motion blur on Gunnery Sergeant Bryce Keene's hand as he makes a diving save in sitting volleyball. I love seeing the poor lighting in the gym at the Air Force Academy light up veteran Sgt. Stephen Lunt's face and arms as he pulls back the arrow, giving him a more defined, chiseled, hard, tough look as he focuses on the target. I've come to terms with the fact that, shooting at 10,000 ISO for the closing ceremonies, there's going to be a little noise. No matter what the circumstances, I made sure that this time, I didn't lose sight of the fact that this event is something that goes beyond myself - the cause is greater than me.
I met some incredible people and saw incredible things. I saw an athlete's final year at the Warrior Games, taking in the bittersweet sights and sounds at the swimming competition as she earned three bronze medals ("I haven't tattooed this year's date yet until I completed the Games - I didn't want to jinx it and miss out," she said).
I saw a burn victim with the most-awesome tattoo ever - a man engulfed in the flames of a phoenix - earn so many medals, he lost count.
I saw GySgt. Pedro Aquino and veteran Cpl. Angel Gomez compete in a shootout after tying in the final round of the Prone SH2 event, where Aquino bested Gomez by one-tenth of a point. And I saw Gomez celebrate with Aquino as if he actually won the gold medal instead.
I saw a participant of last year's Warrior Games, who set Paralympic world records in swimming, be the honorary torch bearer this year, after achieving gold and silver medals at the Paralympics in London literally a year to the day after sustaining injuries that would leave him blind for the rest of his life. (And he has absolutely one of the best, most endearing personalities I've ever got to meet)
I saw an athlete call out the judges at the shooting competition for miscounting his score, yet rather than take the points to advance to the finals, kept his losing score because he "didn't want to take away the opportunity for his Marine Corps brother to compete in the finals."
I saw a coach who gave three weeks of his own personal time - without pay, mind you, and a story not unlike many of the other coaches in this event - to contribute to teaching these athletes techniques and skills for sitting volleyball, which resulted in the team having never lost a single game during the competition and increasing their record in the Warrior Games to 22-1. I also saw this coach stalk Misty May-Treanor in an attempt to get a photograph with her, but that's an entirely different matter.
I saw more Sergeant Majors - even ones who were no longer with the Wounded Warrior Regiment command - root for these athletes and show their support not just for a few days, but for the entire competition.
Sure, I'm getting wordy, and maybe I'm even choking up a little bit as I type this, but until you see and experience the Warrior Games for yourself, I don't know if you'll ever be able to understand how humbled and honored I am to even have witnessed such astounding and inspiring athletes and people. For the Marines to achieve success yet again and win the Chairman's Cup for the fourth time was almost as if I won it, too. I was way more invested in these athletes this time around that every medal they won felt like I won it right there with them.
I suppose it didn't hurt that, during the competition, people from USOC and Deloitte, the Warrior Games' presenting sponsor, kept complimenting the work that we have done on social media, saying how wonderful a job we were doing. Who doesn't like a pat on the back? However, I'm fairly certain that, if it wasn't for the mission I tasked myself to create images that truly represented the spirit, motivation, and achievements of these warriors, everything would be for naught and lacking my best effort.
I know these Games weren't about me, but I must say that I certainly felt like I came out a winner for multiple reasons. I achieved photos that actually best represented the hard work, determination, motivation, and accomplishments of the Marines I got to know. I achieved lasting friendships with those I was photographing, rather than keeping them at arm's length out of fear of coming across as just a groupie or an intrusive member of the media. Best of all, I achieved what I've been seeking with my photos for ages now: a soul.
So, perhaps I actually did deserve the trophy.
Until next time,