CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Marine Cpl. Michael Politowicz wasn’t supposed to be competing in the Warrior Games, an Olympic-style, multi-sport competition for wounded military personnel.
Halfway through a qualifying race to make it onto the Marine cycling team, Politowicz, a former Clinton Township resident, saw the Marine riding in front of him faint and fall off his bicycle. Politowicz was the first to the man’s side. He told the other racers to continue on, but stayed behind with two others until the ambulance arrived.
“Being a Marine, we never leave a Marine behind,” said the 31-year-old Clinton Township native and 2000 Chippewa Valley High School graduate. “The competition doesn’t matter if it’s at the risk of somebody being seriously hurt.”
Stopping to help, along with a hamstring injury that prohibited him from the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, at first cost him a chance to participate in the annual Warrior Games, which were held May 11-17 at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. But he ultimately was admitted to the Games when a teammate dropped out.
Throughout the event, injured service members and veterans from the U.S. Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, Navy and a team from the British military competed in track and field, shooting, swimming, cycling, archery, wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball events.
Politowicz competed in the discus throw, shot put and cycling. He won a bronze medal in discus, which for him, was validation of his hard work, he said.
“The Warrior Games are definitely an eye-opening experience to anyone who feels that their situation is utterly hopeless,” he added, noting one British swimmer who swam a freestyle race with one arm and no legs. “Even if things don’t work out, it could always be worse.”
He initially enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school, but he was medically discharged after fire ant bites sent him into anaphylactic shock. The Marine Corps said he could re-enlist if a doctor cleared him for service.
For 10 years, he underwent treatments to reduce his reaction to fire ant bites. Finally, at the age of 27, a medical doctor cleared him for service and he re-enlisted. He eventually was deployed to Afghanistan, where he served as a demolition specialist.
On April 5, 2011, while on foot patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan, he was wounded when a roadside bomb detonated about three feet from where he stood. He saw the ground swelling below him as the bomb detonated, and then everything went black, he said.
Politowicz was thrown into the air and landed on his head and neck. He woke up in a medical unit, having sustained traumatic brain injury that significantly marred his short-term memory, and severe shrapnel injuries to his left arm and wrist that rendered him unable to hold a gun.
In the months following, the brain injury produced headaches and limited the physical strain he could endure. Unable to remain active, his weight and body fat percentage jumped as he battled post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“Everything was just in the doldrums for a really long time,” he said.
After nine months, with encouragement from friend Elijah Sacra — a fellow Marine and founder of Semper Fidelis Health and Wellness, which focuses on wounded and ill veterans — he got off the couch and back into competition. He started with yoga and fruit juice, and within weeks was running sprint triathlons.
Returning to athletic competition helped restore his self-esteem, he said.
Growing up in a competitive family, athletics have always been in his blood. In high school, he was on Chippewa Valley’s football, wrestling, and track and field teams.
“I love when people doubt my abilities,” he said. “I like proving people wrong.”
His wife, Suzi Politowicz, a Clinton Township native who met Michael while attending Chippewa Valley, said she would never have pictured her husband being able to compete two years ago. Back then, headaches made it impossible to endure physical strain.
The couple now lives near the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.
Suzi Politowicz said Michael shows determination not only as an athlete, but as a Marine, as well.
“He’s competitive in a Marine aspect because he always wants to do the best and be the best,” she said.
Sometimes, his competitive streak takes a backseat when it comes to the good of the team.
While racing in the Warrior Games’ cycling 30k, he sacrificed his chances at winning by outpacing the others at the beginning of the race. It was part of the Marine team’s strategy to draw cyclists from other service branches into a faster pace, tiring them out so that his own team members could win. His Marine team captain took gold in the race.
Brittany Hinchcliffe, the Marine team’s head field coach, said Politowicz’s willingness to grow as an athlete helped him take bronze. Politowicz was able to learn in 10 months what it takes a typical thrower at least two years to get down, she said.
“He was competing against (athletes) who had anywhere from one to four years experience on top of his own,” Hinchcliffe said. “He really came a long ways in a short time.”
For Politowicz, the Warrior Games were more about making the final step in his return to full duty in the Marines, he said.
Politowicz is part of the rare 1 percent of combat-wounded service members who return to active duty. Next month, he plans to return to the same specialty, though whether he will be deployed is up in the air. He wouldn’t mind going back to Afghanistan, he said.
“I’m going to be focused on that more than anything right now,” he said.
Politowicz said the motivation behind his Marine service was his grandfather, Edward Politowicz, an Iwo Jima veteran.
“There’s nothing else I’d rather do,” he added. “I honestly love being a Marine.”
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