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No Is Not an Answer: Wounded Warriors Hope to Inspire in World’s Toughest Race

Veterans are used to being told “no” — that their injuries will force limitations throughout the rest of their lives. But wounded warriors are a very special group of individuals. They spent their lives training to be the best: to be the fastest, stealthiest, and most resilient. Simply stated: to be more than what is expected. 

So when Gretchen Evans and Keith Knoop heard about a high-endurance, eco-challenge race that would be streamed online, the two injured veterans quickly partnered with two civilians who also cope with life-impacting injuries. A logistics-focused person joined the four competitors, and together they formed Team UNBROKEN, with hopes to compete and inspire the world. 

Gretchen Evans, a U.S. Army Bronze Star recipient, is no stranger to task and grit. Her military occupations spread across many tip-of-the-sword specialties such as counterintelligence and military police. In a 2006 rocket attack blast at a forward operation base in Afghanistan, Gretchen lost 99% of her hearing and incurred a severe closed head wound and multiple superficial external wounds. She was later diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Still, Gretchen was determined to persevere and has done so despite her injuries. She registered for Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) programs and services that connected her to a variety of lifesaving programs and services to help her transition into civilian life. In 2019, Gretchen was named Outstanding Combat Female Veteran of North Carolina. She has recently been nominated by her peers and accepted for induction into the U.S. Veterans Hall of Fame. She credits WWP’s physical wellness and adaptive cycling programs with helping her prepare for the challenges she faced with Team UNBROKEN.

Keith Knoop is a U.S. Army Purple Heart recipient who received significant damage to his right leg after a 2009 improvised explosive device (IED) attack in Iraq. The blast and shrapnel stemming from the IED caused fractures to his hip socket, femur, and knee joint and cap, requiring external fixators to hold his leg together while it healed. Keith endured five months in the hospital, fighting off infections while undergoing multiple surgeries and blood transfusions. Those months were followed by two years of navigating what seemed to be a never-ending recovery process filled with medical appointments, additional surgeries, and physical therapy.  Like many wounded warriors, Keith’s invisible wounds — traumatic brain injury, PTSD, and depression — began to take hold, and he began to isolate. At this point, Keith became involved with WWP, attending wounded warrior connection events to surround himself with peers coping with similar injuries. Holding fitness at the center of his recovery, Keith started training to compete in any physical capacity. He began with a half marathon with his twin brother, and it only strengthened his resolve to finish strong in the World’s Toughest Race.

A Ceiling-Kicking, Door-Opening Team
The World’s Toughest Race, hosted by Bear Grylls, lasts an excruciating 11 days and covers more than 460 miles. All teams were set to navigate Fiji’s beautiful, yet unforgiving terrain. All team members were expected to complete a variety of strenuous and dangerous competitions, such as ascending and repelling cliffs and waterfalls, white-water rafting, stand-up paddleboarding, mountain biking, compass navigation, traversing, and sailing.

Despite all being competitors, Team UNBROKEN’s objective when applying for the race was not about winning. Their goal was to open the door for other wounded and injured people who want to do what others would consider impossible — to push through the pain and fatigue that comes with being injured.

“We needed to be a ceiling-kicking, door-opening team for others who come behind us,” Gretchen said. “We aren’t trying to be an example — we aren’t flawless — but we want to represent all those who have been kicked to the curb due to something they can’t control, like their injuries. We want to show people how adaptive we are. We can certainly compete and keep up in spite of our injuries.”

They did just that.

Only 66 teams were accepted from more than 200 applications. Team UNBROKEN’s application initially received a hard “no” as their injuries were believed to be too severe, with the race being intended for tough competitors only. But Team UNBROKEN wouldn’t accept “no” as an answer and asked for reconsideration.

“Yeah, we are injured,” Gretchen explained, “but we’ve each been through a lot. Half the team is combat veterans. We just wanted a chance to show the world what we can do.”

Weeks later, they finally received the nod of approval. They learned 10 teams would be featured on the series; Team UNBROKEN would be one of them.

Military Training in Play
Team injuries did add unique challenges to the race, but the injured veterans quickly reverted to their military training. Though every team eventually found themselves using hand signals, for Team UNBROKEN, signaling was “do or die.”

“We had to get good at signaling and understanding each other,” Gretchen said. “Safety was paramount, and while some teams dealt with environmental conditions, those changed. Our injuries were not something that went away. They affected everything we did.”

Gretchen recalled times when it was so dark and dense, the team would need to tie her to another team member in case they were separated because she wouldn’t be able to hear them call out to her if she got lost. Gretchen wore blue flashing neon lights while cycling so other teams could identify her as hearing impaired.

“Having these injuries is not debilitating,” Gretchen said. “But they can be challenging, especially if your injuries aren’t visible or if you’ve found ways to cope that make them even less noticeable. I read lips well enough that people forget I am deaf, then when they try to communicate with me when I am not looking at them, it can be dangerous. For us, military training definitely came into play during the race.”

Injured, Not Disabled
Team UNBROKEN trained for more than eight months, yet still, the first day of racing fulfilled a deeper purpose.

“Our hearts as wounded warriors don’t see us being disabled,” Gretchen explained. “Yeah, we are injured, but we are more than our injuries. Wounded Warrior Project’s whole point is to provide wounded warriors the opportunities for transformative moments that help us prove to ourselves that our injuries don’t define us. They are just something that happened to us. We are still the determined, faithful, and loyal warriors we have always been.”

And so, through the first day, a special kind of anxiety took hold of Team UNBROKEN. The nervousness stemmed from the depth of understanding exactly who they were representing and the need to honor the wounded in the right way.

“It was more than just us four out there on the course,” Gretchen reflected. “We had a whole demographic to represent in the best light.”

The World’s Toughest Race will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on Aug. 14, 2020.

Contact: Vesta M. Anderson — Public Relations, vanderson@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.570.0771

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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