BOSCOBEL - After 37 years in the Army—including 16 on active duty all over the world—Casey Chamberlain’s body was shot. The 58-year-old Boscobel native had undergone eight major surgeries, including left ankle fusion, right rotator cuff surgery, and replacement of both knees, four surgeries on the right one alone.
“I was in a very dark place,” she says. “When you’re an athlete and you lose everything, it’s really crushing, especially after 37 years of service and leaving on a medical discharge. You feel like you have no purpose.”
After excelling in college softball and professional football, and serving as a master fitness trainer who taught classes in water aerobics and abdominal toning to troops in Kuwait, Chamberlain thought she would never be the athlete she once was.
That’s when her physical therapist at the Tomah VA Medical Center suggested she compete in the National Veterans Golden Age Games.
“I didn’t think I was good enough, but she said, ‘You need to go; you’ll be surprised.’”After some personal contemplation, Chamberlain got in touch with some fellow veterans at the Tomah VA to see if it was possible. In early June she left with 10 other Tomah-area Veterans for Anchorage, thanks in large part to an $800 scholarship from the Tomah VA.
Held this year in and around the Anchorage area, this year’s Golden Age Games attracted over 700 veterans age 55 and older. It serves as one of the VA’s premier sports events.
“It was amazing,” recalls Lt. Col. (Ret.) Chamberlain. “There were 19 women in my age group for free throws alone, and every one had a story. I didn’t have to explain myself. They all get it. They’re all in pain.”
Chamberlain was competing with amputees, wheelchair-bound vets, even a blind power walker.
“And you’re like, ‘Woe is me?’ No, it really puts your life in perspective,” Chamberlain says. “You realize how much you still have. You’re still more physically fit than most people out there.”
Chamberlain came into the Games a skeptic, thinking she wasn’t worthy. She left a champion, with four medals, including a gold in the shot put, a silver in free throw shooting, and a bronze in the discuss. But there were challenges along the way.
“I chose five events to compete in before I left, including the recumbent bicycle race,” she recalls. “Oh my God, I was dying out there. It was the second time I ever rode a recumbent. It killed me. Note to self: Next time ride your bike more than once a year.”
Despite the challenges, Chamberlain felt “reborn,” and is already making plans for next year’s games in Madison.
“I was just going to see what it was all about, and then when I got there I placed in every event,” Chamberlain says. “And then to place first in the shot put, I was like, ‘What?’ That’s crazy.”
Chamberlain certainly has the background and perseverance to succeed, she just had to get past the “dark period” she was in.
She began attending college at UW-River Falls late, at age 28, where she played varsity softball. During her Army career she played fullback for a decade on a series of teams in the Women’s Profession Football League (WPFL). The 1999 season ended with her Lake Michigan Minx beating the Minnesota Vixens on a last-second field goal to capture the WPFL championship.
The Golden Age Games reminded her of those thrilling experiences.
“Just being out there and seeing all those veterans, you feel the camaraderie, you feel like a team again,” Chamberlain says. “You’re all soldiers. Most have been to combat. So they know what you’re going through.”
Chamberlain says it was the camaraderie with fellow veterans that made the experience so special.
“The oldest was a 101-year-old female Marine. She led us in the Pledge of Allegiance,” she recalls. “Oh my God, that was so heart wrenching.”
When they returned to the Denali Conference Center in Anchorage for the awards ceremony the veterans were given a hero’s welcome, and Chamberlain was chosen by the Wisconsin contingent to carry their torch.
“I was like, ‘No way; are you serious?’ It was amazing. It was almost like you’re coming back from deployment,” Chamberlain says. “Imagine the Vietnam vets. This was a first for them given the way they were treated when they returned from the war. It was pretty amazing. When our group came in they yelled, ‘The Cheeseheads are here!’”
And those same Cheeseheads will be hosting next year’s games, June 20-27 in Madison, something Chamberlain is looking forward to with great anticipation.“I just wanted to go to get the experience, so to come back with four medals and two ribbons, I was like, ‘Hey, I guess I’m not washed up yet,’” she says. “I re-learned some of my long-held beliefs, stay positive, keep pushing, and don’t ever give up.”