If there’s one thing running through Brooklyn, New York, native Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Oronde Vassell’s mind, it’s the opportunity to get back what he lost in 2015. One thing is for certain, whether it’s in his boots or his spikes, he’s honored to represent his country.
A rapidly retracting view of South Korea stared back at Master-at-Arms 2nd Class Oronde Vassell as he peered through the window from his seat aboard the commercial plane. Overcome by a feeling of dissatisfaction, he pressed his head against the window and walked his eyes across the haziness below. As the land disappeared underneath an airy sheet of clouds, he repositioned himself in his seat and tried to settle in for the long flight back to the United States, sure he’d left something down there, back in Mungyeong, South Korea. Settling in would be easier said than done.
Two weeks earlier, Vassell arrived in Mungyeong, soaring on a bright cloud of optimism, hoping to seize what he considered “an opportunity of a lifetime.”
“The day I left for South Korea in 2015, it was a surreal feeling,” said Vassell. “All the training and hard work that I put in, all the days when I wasn’t sure what my why was, it all started to sink in. I could feel my purpose.”
Vassell, an accomplished track and field star in high school in the state of New York and at Liberty University Christian College in Virgina, wanted nothing more than to continue competing in the sport he loved. After joining the Navy in 2012, he felt his chances of ever competing in track and field begin to slowly dwindle.
“After graduating from college, I still had a chip on my shoulder; I still had that edge,” said Vassell. “I joined the Navy in the best shape of my life. I was in El Centro, California, my first duty station, when I received a call from my former coach. He asked what I was doing now, and I replied, serving my country.”
His former coach, aware of the All-Navy sports program, and even more aware of the immense amount of talent Vassell possessed in the sport of track and field, insisted that Vassell look into trying to compete while serving in the Navy. It was a shot in the dark, but armed with that tidbit of information about the All-Navy team, Vassell began doing his research.
“I learned they discontinued the All-Navy Track and Field team in ‘96,” said Vassell. “All they have now is the All-Navy Cross-Country Team, and I’m a sprinter and jumper.”
The dismemberment of the All-Navy Track and Field team came as a disappointment to Vassell, he said, but his former coach wasn’t letting him bow out that easily. His former coach pressed him, urging that there had to be a way for Vassell to compete in track and field within the military.
“‘There has to be an armed forces track team which combines all the branches, you just need to see if it’s available to you and apply,’” said Vassell, remembering the words of his coach.
Vassell went back to researching, hoping to find a way to compete. What he found this time around was exactly what he was looking for – the Military World Games, organized by the International Military Sports Council (CISM).
Akin to the Olympics, the Military World Games is held every four years, bringing the top military athletes from around the world to an international stage. The games, falling on an odd-numbered year, specifically the year prior to the Summer Olympics, first began in Rome in 1995 and featured 82 nations and 20 sporting events. Growing every year since its creation, the last games held in Mungyeong, in October 2015, saw 105 countries and 24 sporting events.
“After learning about the Military World Games, I applied to represent our country and I was selected for the team in August 2015,” said Vassell. “I was really shocked that I was the only Navy athlete selected. They take world-class military athletes, put you in a pool, and they select you based on your performances. You have to run Olympic times and you’re held to Olympic standards. I’ve always kept my body in tip-top shape, but once I found out I was on the team, I started training, training, training.”
Finally, back on the road to competing, Vassell’s training opportunities wouldn’t last long. Just over a month after finding out that he made the team, he was packing his bag and boarding a plane headed to Mungyeong.
“I flew to South Korea Sept. 28, 2015,” said Vassell. “When I placed my luggage at the TSA checkpoint at the airport, and next to me were the teams from Brazil, Chile and Honduras, I knew then I’d made it to a world-class elite level of competition. And it all was happening so fast because two days after arriving, I was in the blocks.”
The commencement of the 6th Military World Games was the first time track and field had taken Vassell to an international stage — and according to him, he was ready.
“What really kind of set the tone for me was walking into Athletes’ Village,” said Vassell. “Seeing my name and the names of the other USA athletes gave me a lot of pride. We all felt the comradery. We all said we were doing it for our country. We all wanted to do our best; that was our driving force.”
The two-week event didn’t offer much time for additional training. The track and field team representing the USA in the Military World Games was built by servicemembers from across the armed forces, most of whom had never met each other before arriving in South Korea. Therefore, Vassell and his newfound teammates felt an urgency to get on the track to get their timing down for the 4×100 meter relay and also just to develop some chemistry. Vassell, however, would end up feeling it in a different way.
“We didn’t have a lot time,” said Vassell. “While training for the relay race, I was coming off the curve and I felt a slight strain in my groin. I knew at that moment I could keep going, which I did, but I knew I wasn’t going to be 100 percent moving forward.”
Vassell went on to compete, but the strain ultimately hampered his abilities. He finished eighth in the long jump, and missed marks he knew he could reach in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and the 4×100 meter relay due to his injury.
“I can’t lie, it was disappointing,” said Vassell. “For me, competing in the Military World Games was the biggest stage I’d ever been on and I just wanted to give it my all. Some of the guys I was competing against actually competed in the Olympics in London, and one guy I met competed in the Olympics in Beijing. When you’re going against talent and skill like that, your body has to be clicking on all cylinders.”
In South Korea, Vassell said his body failed him and left him dissatisfied. He felt deep down he’d lost the opportunity of a lifetime.
Thus, while flying aboard the airplane, headed back to United States to continue his career as a master-at-arms in the Navy, Vassell did something he’d never done before — he questioned himself, doubting if his body could hold up against the stiff competition of the Military World Games. He wondered if he was getting too old to continue competing at such a high level. Then Vassell remembered what it felt like when he arrived in South Korea, and he imagined what it would be like to have that same feeling again.
“I couldn’t let go of what it felt like when I was riding through South Korea on my way to the stadium,” said Vassell. “I remember how it felt when I walked into Athlete’s Village. It was all far from anything I ever imagined. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to experience that again.”
All of sudden, while remembering how it felt to be in South Korea, in the company of the other elite athletes, Vassell’s dissatisfaction started to subside. He made up his mind; he was going back to recover what he’d left in Mungyeong. There was, however, one problem. What Vassell was looking for was no longer in South Korea, but in China.
“In 2019, the games will be in China,” said Vassell. “I’m already on the team and I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. When I get in those blocks, all I’ll be thinking about is crossing that finish line, looking for the gold.”
The 7th Military World Games is slated to be held in Wuhan, China in 2019. Vassell is set to compete in the same events in which he competed in 2015, in South Korea. Currently deployed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68), Vassell faces some training challenges while at sea. Yet, he believes it’s all a mind game.
“Out here on the ship, there is no track for me to train on, and that does make it tough,” said Vassell. “But out here, it’s all mental. I have to stay focused. I have to be my biggest competitor out here. It’s all a game of discipline. I know what’s ahead of me and what’s behind me. However, I’m not looking back; I’m just moving forward. I know I won’t always be this fast or be able to jump this high, that’s why I have to take advantage of this opportunity I have in front of me. Come 2019, I’ll be ready. My motivation is that gold medal.”
Story by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Marcus L. Stanley