Run within articleAn empty wheelchair sits near the massage table on which a young man lies. An improvised explosive device, or IED, was responsible for his missing lower right leg, and a stray bullet caused his spinal cord injury. In spite of his medical condition, he came to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to compete in the Warrior Games—and on this day, to receive massage therapy.

Created in 2010 by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the U.S. Olympic Committee Paralympic Military Program, the Warrior Games offer athletes from all branches of the armed services the opportunity to participate in competitive sporting events.

According to Robert E. Moore Jr., chief, Communications Division, U.S. Army Transition Command in Alexandria, Virginia, the wounded, ill or injured service members and veterans vie for medals in seven sports, including archery, cycling, shooting, sitting volleyball, swimming, track and field, and wheelchair basketball. 

One year after its inception, in 2011, Warrior Games organizers decided to give massage a trial run when sports massage therapist Lori-Ann Gallant-Heitborn asked if she could bring a team of massage therapists to the event. Gallant-Heitborn had participated as a massage therapist at the Olympic Games in 2004 and 2008, and at the Paralympic Games in 2010. She is also an administrator at Ultimate Sports Massage, with offices in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and Jacksonville, North Carolina, and had learned about the Warrior Games from her son, who is in the Marine Corps.

The success of that first year—four massage therapists provided 180 sessions in four-and-a-half days—prompted Warrior Games organizers to extend an invitation the following year. Every year since, Gallant-Heitborn and her team of massage therapists have returned.

Gallant-Heitborn explained that the majority of the athletes suffered injuries in Iraq or Afghanistan, although some have other illnesses that have incapacitated them. During the weeklong event, she and the other therapists give an average of 170 half-hour massages. “We gauge treatment based on the events in which they participate and their schedule,” she said.

To finance the trip, Ultimate Sports Massage holds fundraising events such as raffles and pasta dinners. This year, the group created a fundraising website, which helped reach a wider audience and paid for airfare. While some of the team flies to Colorado, others make the drive. “When we go, we are fully functional, said Gallant-Heitborn. “We have a van to store our gear and transport the massage therapists.” 

Describing the Warrior Games experience as interesting and fun, Gallant-Heitborn said it also offers her massage therapists the opportunity to participate in the athletes’ continued commitment to excellence. 

“We build relationships with these athletes,” she said. “They have devastating injuries, but don’t expect pity—they tell us they find ways to move forward and be successful in life.” 

About the author

Phyllis Hanlon has written nonfiction articles and book reviews as well as human-interest stories, profiles and award-winning essays. Her specialty areas include health and medicine, religion, education and business. She regularly delights in the joys of massage. She has written many articles for MASSAGE Magazine, including “Anti-Aging Treatments: LED, Microcurrent and Infrared Therapy” (May) and “Aromatherapy Education” (August).