Cover Story: Heroes Meet Heroes 2020

Military veterans and olympians meet via Zoom for Veterans Advantage’s annual Heroes Meet Heroes.

On November 10, 2020 Veterans Advantage hosted its 13th annual Heroes Meet Heroes event in honor and recognition of Veterans Day. Some of the finest Olympic athlete heroes joined our military heroes with inspiring stories of service for Veterans Advantage members. 

This year’s panel was held in as a live streaming media event, in place of its past location at legendary New York Athletic Club, where Cedric Jones, serves as Athletic Director. The conversation and Q&A brought in viewers nationwide and a sense of connection with the military community online for a socially distanced Veterans Day due to the global pandemic.

The 2020 Heroes guest panelists included Medal of Honor Recipients Bud Bucha & Florent Groberg, and two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist and Emmy Award-winning broadcaster Donna de Varona. Further rounding out the impressive panel of guests speakers were Michelle Carter, Olympic gold medalist in Shot Put; Richard M. Jones, Executive VP and Chief Veteran Officer, ViacomCBS; Priscilla Loomis, Olympian in High Jump; John Mann, 2 time Olympian in Water Polo; and Dr. Phil Shinnick, U.S. Air Force Veteran and 2-time Olympian, Long Jump & World Record holder.

“Most of us Olympians feel like ambassadors from the United States to the world of international sports rather than heroes. We’re really here to honor those who served our country, including you,” de Varona said to host Scott Higgins, co-founder and co-CEO Scott Higgins, a Vietnam Veteran, who was joined by co-founder Lin Higgins, who conceived the event in 2012.

Northrop Grumman served as the Presenting Sponsor of the event as it has for the past three years, joined this year by Caliber Home Loans, longtime VetRewards Exclusive partner 1800Flowers and Veterans Advantage’s supporting event partner, FourBlock, which helps veterans build professional career networks by growing relationships. 

As the evening’s event progressed, the Olympians passionately expressed their deepest gratitude for our nation’s military & veterans in their remarks.

“I really feel indebted to all of our veterans for allowing our athletes and civilians to just live our everyday wonderful lives and try to achieve dreams that we have. We have that great privilege to do so because of your sacrifices,” said John Mann. 

Speaking of his water polo success, he said, “So many things in this sport that have changed my life and made me a better person, and I owe that to you.”

Besides responding to questions about the influence of mentors and their abiding respect for the American flag, the panelists agreed on the similarities between high-level sports training and military training, citing the common guiding principals of dedication, determination, and perseverance. 

“To me, the discipline that I learned through sports really allowed me to be successful as an infantry officer, so there’s a connection to everything,” said Florent Groberg.

A common topic was how each panelist is staying motivated or healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly since this year’s 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until next summer. 

“I like discipline because it brings clarity of the head and fights all those negative things that come into your mind and you keep on a track that’s straight and good,” said Phil Shinnick. 

Priscilla Loomis spoke about using the time the pandemic has given her to increase her flexibility and skills, and others spoke about the sacrifices they made for their sport. Many reiterated the importance of having great people around them that allow them to succeed and the power of living a life with purpose.

“Those who wear the [military] uniform are just like those who win a competition,” explained Bud Bucha. “We look at our men in combat and teach them to trust us and to trust their own abilities and we constantly make it possible for them to succeed. That’s exactly like every coach I’ve had the privilege of being with. The nicest thing is that this country will let you do that.”

Besides the physicality, determination and grit, Shinnick explained another major comparison between the Olympics and the military.

“The thing about the Air Force that I really liked was the tremendous comradeship between the officers with each other, and between the enlisted men and the officers. The Olympics was the same way. Throughout all the sports you’re an Olympian and there's solidarity. It lasts forever,” he said. He joked that he’s known fellow panelist Donna de Verona for 50 years, which garnered a laugh from all his fellow panelists. 

“I found a home in the military, and I found a home with my fellow Olympians.” 

Both de Varona and Bucha have been Advisory Board members of Veterans Advantage since its inception in 2000.

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