South Carolina softball's alumni weekend will have a little more purpose to it this fall. In addition to the usual joy of reuniting with old friends and coming back to campus, the former Gamecocks will take part in the Capital City Showdown against the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team (WWAST) on Friday, November 20 at Carolina Softball Stadium at Beckham field. (WWAST is not affiliated with the Wounded Warrior Project.)
"When I first reached out to the alumni on Facebook and told them about this WWAST team, I think I had 35 people respond in the first two hours that they wanted to take part in it," said former Gamecock pitcher Kate (Pouliot) Abney, who spearheaded the event. "And other people were saying they wanted to make this the official alumni weekend for the team. So now it's alumni weekend with a cause. The interest has been incredible from our alumni. We have people flying in from California, New York, and Florida to play in this game. We have alumni who played in the early 1980s coming in, and we have some people who just graduated in the last year."
"We're a competitive softball team, but we use softball as a vehicle to message, educate and inspire our youth and our older crowds as well about overcoming adversity," said United States Air Force Technical Sergeant and WWAST member Leonard Anderson. "Everybody on the team is an amputee and is missing a limb. We teach that you can overcome anything that gets in your way as long as you have the right mind-frame and put yourself in the right situation."
Abney, who is now an occupational therapist at Lexington Medical Center Extended Care, became interested in the WWAST after seeing a post on Facebook.
"One of my former professors put on an event with the team in Charleston last March," Abney said. "I watched them play and it was incredible. I met some of the players, and being an occupational therapist, I was really intrigued by their adaptions for hitting and catching. It's really, really cool. I've just been on fire since then trying to figure out how to make this work."
The South Carolina-based non-profit organization Fun4All, which provides recreational opportunities for individuals with disabilities, is making it work by raising the funds to bring WWAST to town for the event. Fun4all co-founder Michelle Rogers was Abney's former supervisor while studying at MUSC. Abney had directed a fundraiser for the organization as a student and knew Fun4All would be the perfect fit to make it happen.
"We're raising money to put the event on," Abney said. "Our goal is $20,000. We're raising money to purchase their flights, put them up in hotels, and getting them food for the weekend. There are a lot of other logistics with publicity and t-shirts and things like that. Then we'll make a donation at the end with the remaining money that is raised."
Additionally, WWAST is a non-profit 501(c)3 and will accept donations through their web site www.woundedwarrioramputeesoftballteam.org or at the game itself.
"Those donations go to a lot of different things," Anderson said. "They go back towards research for bone growth for amputees. We give back a lot to Walter Reed (National Military Medical Center). It can go to therapy equipment to help wounded soldiers get back on their feet. We also give a lot to research for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder)."
So now it's alumni weekend with a cause. The interest has been incredible from our alumni.Kate Abney
Some funds assist in keeping the team functioning when all of their travel costs are not covered. The 31 year-old Anderson is a native of Chester, S.C., and is still on active duty in San Antonio, Texas. While serving in Afghanistan in July 2012, he lost his left hand, most of his right hand, and had his legs partially mangled when an improvised explosive device (IED) detonated while he was on patrol. He makes it a point to emphasize that everyone has their own challenges, whether they are financial, physical or family issues.
"Just because you're not disabled or missing a limb, it doesn't mean that you won't face adversities in your life," Anderson said. "Our motto is 'Life without a limb is limitless.' We want to show you that as long as you put the right foot in front of the other, you can do anything. The sky is the limit. It's about how mentally tough you are in order to take the right steps to put you in the right places and get to where you want to be in life."
The team travels the country and plays approximately 20 of these games per year. The organization also hosts a week-long camp for children who are amputees each year. The team is made up of mostly retired veterans from all over the country, with a few who are still on active duty.
"We have a lot fun with the crowd," Anderson said. "We interact with people before and after the game. We're pretty fun-loving with each other. We'll pick on each other's injuries, and that's just how we cope with things. We do a lot through laughter. We have some great players on the team who can do phenomenal things on their prosthetics. I always tell everybody, it's the small battles that win the wars. So you learn to take everything step by step."
Anderson, who grew up as a Clemson fan, and Abney can't resist trading barbs about the Gamecocks and Tigers, but they're serious about trying to do something positive together in the community.
"We co-exist," Anderson laughed. "She even bought me University of South Carolina softball shirt. I want her to do an inning of fastpitch."
The event will be a doubleheader with WWAST taking on South Carolina softball alumni, which will be coached by former Gamecock head coach Joyce Compton, beginning at 6 p.m. The second game will feature WWAST against a group of local first responders from the Midlands, including Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon.
Admission to the event is free, but donations will be accepted at the door for Fun4All or WWAST. Individuals wishing to support Fun4All in their effort to cover the team's expenses can email Fun4allsc.firstname.lastname@example.org to get more information. The Loose Cockaboose in Columbia will host a fundraiser on Saturday, October 17 during the South Carolina football game against Vanderbilt to help raise money for the event as well.