IMG Academy in Bradenton hosts Wounded Warrior Project

vmannix@bradenton.comJune 16, 2013 

BRADENTON

Will Jones wrestled in high school more than 25 years ago and recalls what practice was like.

"Survival of the fittest," the Baltimore native said.

An Army Ranger for 23 years, he remembers boot camp, too.

"Basic was pretty much run, pushups, situps -- and shoot everything in front of you," said Jones, 43.

So imagine his reaction when he and 29 other veterans got their first taste of the elite level of training world-class athletes receive at IMG Academy.

"Oh, my God," Jones said.

He was immersed last week in the Wounded Warrior Project & IGNITE 360 Health and Fitness Expo, a comprehensive three-day program for injured veterans that focuses on physical and mental conditioning as well as nutrition.

"First thing, we did the kettle bell workout, which smoked me completely right off the bat," Jones said. "It made me nervous the whole day was going to be like that."

Not that he was complaining, understand.

Far from it.

Watching the IMG Performance staff set up circuit training stations along the 60-yard turf surface of the Center for Athletic Development, the Ravens fan was struck by the realization: This is where players like Pirates All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton and even Bayshore High's Fabian Washington, who once played for Jones's favorite NFL team, have trained.

"I had no idea there was even a place like this," he said. "Anybody who comes here, it would do won

ders for you."

Not just physically, but emotionally.

The training regimen also had classes on leadership, communication and mental conditioning.

IMG hopes to make it an annual event.

"The perfect place to bring this population of veterans," said Jason Martinez, senior physical health and wellness specialist with the Wounded Warrior Project. "The ones here do not have the resources they need in their backyard. We hope to give them those tools and have them go home and be able to apply some of those things."

The veterans were in their mid-20s to mid-40s.

Many sported buzzcuts and tattoos.

Some saw combat. Others were injured stateside.

None were amputees, but that's deceiving.

"Just because they don't have a prosthetic, people don't see the invisible injuries -- a traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder," Martinez said. "Then there are those who as a result of a physical injury have secondary conditions. They're anxious, depressed, staying in the house, not being active. This supportive environment bodes well for these warriors to get active again."

That resonated with Jones, who is medically disabled.

"The goal-setting class was fabulous," he said. "It had me focus on things I need to do to get where I want to go. It really helped me to address some of the areas where I'm having problems not being honest with myself, what my goals really are."

Those immediate goals were navigating the training circuit Thursday afternoon.

At one end was a huge truck tire for flipping.

At the opposite end were two long thick speed ropes.

Among the apparatus in between was an array of metal stands with a hip girdle attached to elastic straps for resistance running and jumping.

Jones had one word for it.

"Challenging," he said.

Shaakira Hassell wanted it that way.

To the assistant strength and conditioning coach, they were no different than the other athletes she trains at IMG.

Yet Hassell felt an affinity for them.

Both her parents are retired veterans.

Her mother is a Wounded Warrior.

"I feel a real connection with these men and women, so when this opportunity came up I leapt at the chance," said the Chicago native and former Beloit College, Wis., basketball player. "Through the skill sets I have now, that's one way I can assist the military -- by training Wounded Warriors."

As Hassell explained and demonstrated each station, the 30 veterans were all eyes and ears.

"It's the same concept because every day we deal with injured athletes, modifying each exercise to suit each individual based on their limitations and needs," she said.

"That's how I look at each individual I work with. How can I improve their lifestyle or experience?

"I'm going to push them just as hard as I push my athletes. Why? Because they're all athletes."

Will Jones appreciated the notion.

It's been a while since the former wrestler and Ranger heard himself described that way.

Or even thought it.

"I want to learn I can get back into shape and I want to be honest with myself, set some realistic goals," Jones said. "I'm 100 percent confident I can do that."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix

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