Just days away from the annual Warrior Games that will pit teams of wounded warriors from each branch of the U.S. military against each other in Paralympic sports, the coach of the U.S. Navy/Coast Guard swim team said working with these athletes has been the highlight of his life.
Aaron Moffett, an associate professor of kinesiology at Cal State San Bernardino, coaches a remarkable team of men and women wounded warriors with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, cancer, paralysis, blindness, amputations and burns.
Moffett, who is also the director of CSUSB’s annual DisAbility Sports Festival where he prepares youths and adults for the Paralympic Games, will give final coaching and guidance to the team he first began to coach in May 2011.
He hopes his athletes, half of whom are returning to the competition, can at least match last year’s result, when they came home with nine gold medals, three silver medals and one bronze medal.
But whatever the result, he is enormously proud to be associated with the group of wounded warriors. Moffett said coaching these athletes from the pool deck gives him honor.
“This is my way of giving back – to say thank you to them,” Moffett said.
The Warrior Games are collaboration between U.S. Paralympics and the U.S. Department of Defense, hosted at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
It hasn’t been an easy task for Moffett. Team members live around the country and the only chance he gets to meet with them face to face is at a few training camps a year.
Moffett said the rest of his coaching is done over e-mail or text messages, which he said can be a challenge.
But making adjustments and adaptations so his athletes can be competitive swimmers isn’t a challenge.
“I make accommodations across the board for a natural environment to make my swimmers in all areas that much better,” Moffett said.
Take the case of U.S. Navy Lt. Brad Snyder, who is blind. Swimmers must know where the pool wall is, but that doesn’t require vision, Moffett said.
“As a swimmer, you just know,” said Moffett who worked with Snyder on perfecting his stroke count so he could “just know.”
Today Snyder is one of the team’s fastest swimmers; he even qualified for the national Paralympics team.
Navy veteran Nathan DeWalt worked with Moffett on adjusting his swim stroke. Due to his spinal cord injury, which left him with no control over his legs, DeWalt needed a natural way to help his back stay afloat. By fine-tuning his arm reach, DeWalt has really improved, according to Moffett.
Whether the men and women on the team are swimming to get better in events such as 50- and 100-meter freestyle, 50-meter backstroke or the 200-meter freestyle relay, Moffett said he works with each athlete on “feeling the water.”
“Swimmers shave to take dead skin cells off and put their nerve endings closer to the water,” said Moffett. “A good swimmer always wants to be pushing water instead of air. I’m working on making them better with these skills.”
Navy mineman Linda Simpson, a single leg amputee, is new to the sport and listens to everything Moffett has to offer. He says her willingness to try new things and desire to soak everything in is fantastic for a coach.
The lessons learned at training camp and even through the phone have shown an impact not only in athletic reconditioning, but also in the mental and social health of the team members. Service members are flourishing in and out of the water because of their Warrior Games experience.
“They are working in a safe environment. Working on post traumatic stress disorder, talking freely inside the group, they take that home and talk to their families,” said Moffett. “They really start to reintegrate from the camps.”
Navy Lt. Melanie Montes de Oca competes with a lower body impairment while also recovering from a traumatic brain injury. She is a Warrior Games veteran whose experience is a great asset for the team, he said.
From veterans to rookies, Moffett said he is proud of his team and their improvements. It won’t be much longer before they have the chance to show how their hard work has paid off, but Moffett is already humbled and hopes to see each of his athletes also get back to being successful in their communities.
“It’s an incredible feeling to work with the men and women on the Navy/Coast Guard team,” Moffett said. “They’ve done so much for us and yet they are saying ‘thank you’ to me.”
Visit the Warrior Games website for more information.
Also visit CSUSB DisAbility Sports Festival website for more information on the annual festival and Moffett.
For more information on Cal State San Bernardino, contact the university’s Office of Public Affairs at 909-537-5007 and visit news.csusb.edu.