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Visually-impaired runner breaks record at DOD Warrior Games

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In the Army Michael Stephens and Adam Blow knew the meaning of “explosive.” Now medically retired, the pair proved on the track Sunday that they know the less-dangerous meaning of the word as Blow guided Stephens to record-breaking times in the visually impaired category during the DOD Warrior Games in Chicago.

About 265 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans representing teams from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command, the United Kingdom and the Australian Defense Force are competing June 30-Saturday in shooting, archery, cycling, track and field, swimming, sitting volleyball and wheelchair basketball.

Blow worked with underwater explosives in the Navy from 1999 to 2006, when he joined the Army as a truck driver, and retired after serving for a total of 17 years.

He has a traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder and shoulder and back injuries from a mortar attack during a combat deployment to Afghanistan in 2010.

Stephens served as a combat engineer for five years and is visually impaired due to a rare brain injury as a result of an explosion during a combat deployment from 2013 to 2014.

“We worked with explosions on the regular,” Stephens said, “and we were a very direct unit, so as a direct result of combat and (improvised explosive devices), I was injured four times during the course of the deployment. I’m going completely blind. Currently, my brain doesn’t communicate to my eyes due to a rare condition. It’s like the neurological symptoms someone would have with Parkinson’s, that’s how it’s progressing.”

Stephens and Blow came into the competition Sunday determined to not only take the gold in the men’s visually impaired 100-meter and 200-meter races, but to break records.

Last year, Stephens had planned to run with Blow, but had to pull out because he injured his knee during the first race.

“I took home three gold medals and set records in the field events with a blown knee last year so that was great, but I didn’t get a chance to run it for my family,” Stephens said. “This year, I get the opportunity to do that with Blow, and we’re pretty fast. We’re going to go.”

After injuring his knee, Stephens said he spent the rest of the track day in the hospital, but was able to finish his field events on crutches.

Blow told Stephens that he would rather have run with him last year than to have run his own individual event.

With Blow’s guidance, Stephens broke the visually impaired men’s DOD Warrior Games 100-meter and 200-meter records, fighting heat and wind.

“The first one felt great because we had to overtake the field; they all came out of blocks so we ran them down and then ran past them,” Stephens said. “The 200 though, that head wind felt like you were walking into a wall when you got down to the last stretch. If I didn’t have my guide next to me right here telling me to keep going, don’t slow down, I think we would probably have just stopped the race and been like, you guys have it. It was rough out there on the 200.”

The two teammates live close to each other in Texas. Stephens lives in Dallas, and Blow lives in Mansfield. They said they stay in contact with each other and with athletes from the other service branches because they’re all family. They both tend to brag about each other.

“Adam’s the fastest sprinter on the Army team as an individual athlete, and he gave up his opportunity to run and medal for himself in order to guide for me because no one here can keep up with me in the sprint and I can’t run alone,” Stephens said. “He actually pulled himself out of the competition to run with me,” Stephens said.

“I post everything about my kids on Facebook, so Mike said, ‘Hey, is this the guy I’m going to be running with in the 400? So when we got here, Mike was pushing for it, to get on the track and run with my son on the track,” Blow said. “Mike’s a stand-up guy. I’m overwhelmed right now. He’s so amazing. He deserves all of this (breaking records and earning gold medals), everything.”

Army coach Rodney Carson, who’s been coaching the track athletes for five years, said he’s proud of them and all of the Army athletes who competed Sunday.

“They did outstanding,” he said. “We’ve been doing outstanding today, dealing with some of the elements of heat out here.

“It was great to see an athlete like Mike stay in the game and stay motivated, work through those setbacks. That’s what this is about. It’s getting them engaged, encouraging them and empowering them through sports.” n