by Elton Price
Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center Detachment 4
April 22, 2010 - PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- (Editor's note: Peterson's 2nd Lt. Marc Ward was one of 20 Air Force members recently selected to participate in the Warrior Games scheduled May 10 to 14 at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. About 200 wounded, ill and injured active duty, Guard and Reserve members, as well as retired personnel and veterans, from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard will compete.)
In the blink of an eye ...
Just ask 2nd Lt. Marc Ward how fast everything can change. In the blink of an eye, his drive toward a national championship with the U.S. Air Force Academy rugby team came to a crashing end.
May 3, 2003, the Zoomies were facing the No. 1 ranked team in the nation -- the University of California, Berkeley -- in the college rugby semi-finals. Up until that day, the Bears had racked up 12 consecutive national championships, were ranked No. 1, and trailed the 4th ranked cadets by a single point, 8-7.
And then came "the" stick.
About 20 minutes into the game, the Bears were running a sweep right, when the solidly built, 6-foot-1, Ward zoomed out of nowhere to lay a ferocious stick on the ball carrier. The ball went flying, and the Academy's Josh Dean picked it up and scored as Ward crumpled face down on the ground.
"I was left unconscious on the field for five minutes," Ward said. It took the medical crew 30 minutes before they could cart him off the field. "I was hospitalized for four days, none of which I remember."
As he lay on the field, his stunned family could only look on.
"My dad, brother, sister, both grandmas, uncles, aunts -- my whole family was there," he said, explaining that the game -- at Stanford University's rugby pitch -- was only about a 30-minute drive from his hometown of Alamo, Calif.
He was taken by ambulance to Stanford University's medical center, which -- luckily for him -- had one of the top neurological teams in the nation. Coincidentally, Stanford's chief of neurology -- Dr. Larry Shuer -- was also a family friend. The doctor's daughter and Marc's sister, Marcie, played soccer together on the Stanford University soccer team.
For the first couple of days, because of all the pain medicine, Marc couldn't even tell the doctors exactly what was wrong. They conducted a battery of tests -- X-rays, CAT scans, MRIs -- but couldn't find anything conclusive.
For four days, his family stayed at his bedside as the medical team continued to try to find out exactly how badly he was hurt. Finally, his father was allowed to take him home. He stayed at his father's house on convalescent leave for about three months, not knowing it'd be more than two years before he'd make it back to the Academy for his sophomore year.
Tests finally revealed he had "completely avulsed (tore) two nerves between the C-5 and C-6 vertebrae."
The injury left his right arm pretty much useless.
"I had pain that started near my shoulder and kind of moved down my arm," he said, describing the pain as kind of a prickly feeling. "With nerve injuries, they heal themselves about an inch or so a month."
He began rehab while convalescing at his father's house. It took nine months before he could even move his arm, and more than a year before he had much range of movement at all.
Gradually though, he did get better.
That fall, he attended St. Mary's College, just east of the San Francisco Bay area. Later that year, he found his Academy rugby coach -- Rob Holder -- had taken a job as the head rugby coach at Stanford University. When Holder asked Marc to be one of his assistants, Marc jumped at the chance.
By June, 2005, he'd recovered enough to return to the Academy. The injury still limited some of his activities -- he couldn't do pull-ups as part of his physical training test -- but he made up for it by maxing out on other parts of the test.
"I don't think the muscle will ever completely come back," he said, flexing his right arm.
Back at the Academy, he maintained his ties with the rugby team. He served as an assistant coach, and even tried to play some his junior year, but hung up his cleats after suffering a few minor concussions. His senior year -- even though he didn't play -- he served as team captain.
Despite all of his injuries, Ward still loves rugby.
This past November, he scored a tournament best 54 points to lead the Air Force rugby team to a sixth consecutive gold medal at the annual Armed Forces Rugby Championship at Fort Benning, Ga. In the title match, Air Force soundly beat Army 34-0.
Playing a grueling five games in three days, the Air Force ruggers trounced their sister services by a combined score of 226-3. They didn't allow a single try.
Ward, a space-force-enhancement test analyst for Det. 4, Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, is looking to take that same intensity and passion to this year's Warrior Games. He'll compete in the 400- and 200-meter races.
Ward said he's training for the games on a four-days-on, one-day-off schedule.
"I sprint 500 or 600 meters, rest for three minutes, then repeat," he said. He completes five sets during each training session. He said he's also continuing his normal weight training regimen.
Despite not running track since his freshman year of high school, he'd like to run the 400 meters in under 50 seconds. That's a pretty lofty goal considering the current men's world record is 43.18 seconds set Aug. 26, 1999, by former Olympic great Michael Johnson.
But, as Ward well knows, miracles happen.
Just ask that U.S. Air Force Academy team playing Cal-Berkeley way back in 2003. Despite Ward's injury, the Zoomies upset Goliath that day, knocking off Cal-Berkeley, 46-28. They then beat Harvard, 45-37, the following day to win the national championship.