Coach David Van Sleet, softball super star Jennie Finch-Daigle and Wounded Warrior player Joshua Wege at a news conference for the Wounded Warrior Project softball game, which is set for next week at Frasch Park in Sulphur. (Michelle Higginbotham / Special to the American Press)
(Michelle Higginbotham / Special to the American Press)
Last Modified: Monday, July 09, 2012 5:14 PM
Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team is composed of war veterans and
active-duty soldiers who have lost one or more limbs
in post-9/11 combat. They’re dedicated to enhancing their postwar
lives through athletics, specifically softball, and travel
around the country playing in exhibition and celebrity softball
This weekend the team will land in Sulphur for the “Battle on the Bayou” at McMurry Park, a two-day tournament against Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch-Daigle’s All-Star softball team.
The American Press interviewed WWAST head coach David Van Sleet in preparation for the special softball games in Sulphur.
American Press: Tell me how you got involved with this softball team. What was the inspiration behind getting it started?
David Van Sleet: “How I got involved was I’m an Army veteran, and I went to college and been in prosthetics my whole career with the department of Veterans Affairs. So between the Army, prosthetics and the Department of Veterans Affairs, and I’ve always been around the game of softball as a player and a coach, I had the four pieces of the puzzle to put together here. The University of Arizona in Tuscon obtained a Congressional grant to have a disabled veterans sports camp. They had enough funds to have it for a couple of years. The first two years were wheelchair sports-related, and I helped them get some candidates for the second year. So they said to me, ‘What do you think would be a good thing to do for next year for a disabled sports camp?’ And I said amputee softball. They thought I originally meant in wheelchairs. I said ‘No, just the opposite.’ That’s how we got together for the first time. That grant covered the whole week down in Tuscon, but then after that it was over. But then Sports Illustrated wrote an article on us and called us America’s new favorite team, and the rest is history.”
Describe the road this team has taken over the past year to get to the level of exposure and enthusiasm it’s reached so far. What challenges have you had to overcome behind the scenes?
Van Sleet: “We’ve only been together 16 months. To be where we are in 16 months is absolutely phenomenal. First of all finding the right guys ability and chemistry-wise, logistically everybody is from a different city or town in the United States, so probably our biggest obstacle is travel. Our most expensive thing is travel — to get everybody to the same place within a reasonable amount of time. When we come to Sulphur, La., to play, we fly into Lake Charles, but there’s 12 or 15 of us coming from 15 different airports and different flights, that’s the biggest obstacle.”
What is it like to work with these players on a daily basis?
Van Sleet: “I was with the Department of Veterans Affairs for over 30 years in prosthetics, so I’ve seen over the years a number of soldiers and veterans, but this group is sort of special because we found a group that was extremely athletic, competitive and that really was looking forward to getting back into that normal lifestyle and camaraderie of being on a sports team.”
How has your job as head coach helped shape who you are?
Van Sleet: “That’s a good question. Having a very, very good career with the Department of Veterans Affairs all in prosthetics and being able to retire at the top of my game, when you get a little bit older it’s time to give something back. This is my way of giving something back. These guys have made my life complete. They’ve helped me as much as I’ve helped them. It gives me great gratitude to see we’ve started a program that they’re really interested in and they’re being treated the way they should be. It’s a win-win situation for both them and me. It’s just an amazing story. It’s not just me; we have so many people behind the scenes making this happen. Everyone is volunteering their time and not getting compensated for it. When you get older, you need to re-evaluate your life and be true to who you are and give something back.”
What’s the team’s typical schedule like as far as practice and travel for example?
Van Sleet: “We’ve played over 45 games so far in 28 different cities. A lot of the guys are playing in leagues back in their hometowns during the week. But the normal routine is to fly out on Thursday, play Friday night, practice Saturday morning, play a couple of games Saturday and leave Sunday.”
How do you determine when and where the team plays?
Van Sleet: “We get a dozen inquiries a day from all over the country. We only pick venues that are good for the team and for the community. Our normal opponents are police departments, fire departments, military teams, colleges, universities, city teams, and now Jennie Finch is bringing in her Bayou All-Star team, something that really relates to us and helps with the community.”
What does it mean to be playing in a game against a team of all-stars led by someone like Jennie Finch?
Van Sleet: “We played against her and her husband Casey in Florida back in January, so we know what to expect. Obviously they’re top competition and we have to be on top of our game. We’ll see how we do. It’s not all about winning. We have to play our game and see if we can hang in there with them. It will be interesting.”
When she approached you to come play in Sulphur this summer, what was your reaction?
Van Sleet: “My initial reaction I told her was ‘I don’t think we can make it.’ We have a set routine we go through two times a month. But then it’s Jennie Finch, so we said ‘You know what, we’ll make an exception here and we’ll go down.’ I called the guys and they said absolutely let’s go down to Sulphur and play and don’t worry about it being another weekend out of the month.”
What made you want to fit her into your schedule?
Van Sleet: “Jennie Finch being Jennie Finch. To influence an area down there and show them the experience and extensive rehabilitation these guys have gone through. She’s a heavy hitter down there, and she could help us as much as we could help her we thought. Plus, she’s the ambassador of women’s softball for the world. Once we got to thinking about it, we thought it was very important for us to go down there and play.”
What are your expectations for the games?
Van Sleet: “We understand it’s going to be hot and muggy. We understand there’s going to be a large crowd. Softball is a crazy game. It could go either way depending on who’s hitting. I think for the most part the Friday night and Saturday night games should be somewhat competitive. We can hold our own, but I know they’re very, very good players.”
How much do you expect the heat to be a factor?
Van Sleet: “Well, heat is a factor for these guys because most of them wear a prosthetic device with a gel liner, and the liner is almost like a wet-suit material up against their skin. So when they’re on the field and running and all that, they sweat a lot. So we expect them to sweat a lot and have to take their prosthetics off between innings, wipe themselves down, put it back on and go to the next inning. So yes, we do think the heat will be a factor prosthetically. I think we’ll be OK just playing in the heat the rest of the way. They’ve got it down to a routine, and they know what they have to do.”
Overall, what do you hope to accomplish in your journey to Louisiana?
Van Sleet: “First of all we’re going to an area we’ve never been. That’s one of our goals is to go to areas where we can touch the whole country. Everyone is curious about that Cajun flavor down there, and just being down there almost in the marshland to be honest with you. We all watch it on TV, but it’ll be nice to go down there and experience an area like that. We all say we’re going to cities and towns we never would have gone to if it wasn’t for this team. But more importantly, we just want to show the community our heartfelt thanks for doing all this for us. These guys have gone through extensive rehabilitation to get back to being able to play a sport, and they want to show the community they’re OK and they’re getting on with their life and that they’re playing a sport they grew up with.”