Former, Aspiring Paralympians Trace Adaptive Sports Journeys Back to National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Army Veteran and Paralympic athlete Mark Shepherd.

Army Veteran and Paralympian Mark Shepherd.

Four years ago, paralyzed Army Veteran Mason Symons had no idea he would one day set his sights on qualifying for the U.S. Paralympic team.

It was June 2012, and Symons was traveling to Richmond to compete in his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America. Hesitant to believe that sports could help him regain the purpose he thought was lost following a life-changing spinal cord injury in 2009, Symons determined to keep much to himself.

“I was very out of my element at my first Wheelchair Games; I was like the shy kid in the corner,” he says. “But the Games were where it all started. I played wheelchair rugby for the first time, and it wasn’t long before I determined it was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a Paralympian.”

For Symons, who June 27-July 2, 2016, will compete in Salt Lake City in his fifth consecutive NVWG, the tables have turned. He is now much more on the giving than receiving end when it comes to educating fellow Veterans about adaptive sports. No longer the shy kid but the cool kid, Symons is following a long line of Paralympic athletes who trace the start of their journeys into adaptive sports back to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

The dream of wearing the Team USA jersey in quad rugby in the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo is what drives Symons to wake up each morning at 4 a.m. to begin six to eight hours of training. It’s also what motivates him to eat a healthy, balanced diet and test himself against his able-bodied counterparts on the rugby court.

“My only experience prior to the Wheelchair Games were a couple of practices where I just sat on the bench; I didn’t even play,” Symons says. “But once I was introduced to the Games, it motivated me to keep training and be the best I can be. It made a big difference.”

Fellow Army Veteran Mark Shepherd agrees with that sentiment. Shepherd, paralyzed in a car accident in 1986 while working as a police officer, attended his first NVWG in 1988 and, enamored with adaptive athletics as a means to maintain his healthy and active lifestyle, he set his sights on the Paralympics. Weaved throughout his participation at 19 NVWG since then is a stint as director of disabled sports services for the U.S. Olympic Committee as well as competition in the Atlanta (1996), Nagano (1998) and Sydney (2000) Paralympic Games.

“It’s all a matter of how bad you want it,” Shepherd says. “For me, it all started with the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.”

Army Veteran Gabe Diaz de Leon traces a similar path from his first NVWG in 1986 to his competition in five consecutive Paralympic Games. De Leon, paralyzed in a Jeep accident resulting from enemy fire in Honduras in 1984, discovered his keen skills for track and field and archery as a NVWG novice and determined to dual qualify in both events for the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.

de Leon has since received one gold, one silver and four bronze medals over the course of five Paralympic Games. He also was awarded the “Spirit of the Games” trophy at the 2014 NVWG in Philadelphia for his positivity, determination and generous support and leadership in adaptive sports.

de Leon hasn’t stopped. Even in the midst of early stage kidney cancer, he’ll compete in the Paralympic trials in late June for a spot on Team USA for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“When you’re first injured, you have a lot of people telling you what you can’t do,” de Leon says. “The Wheelchair Games opened my eyes to all that I could do.”

For Paralyzed Veterans of America National President Al Kovach, a Navy SEAL paralyzed in a parachuting accident in 1991, a trip to San Antonio in 1993 to compete in his novice year at the NVWG was also eye-opening. The Games planted the seed, so that years later, while training with fellow Navy SEAL and five-time Iron Man champion Carlos Moleda, Kovach set his sights on training for the Paralympics.

It was the inspiration of Moleda, and the hard work of VA recreational therapist and coach Kelli Kaliszewski, that Kovach says helped earn him a place on Team USA for the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.

“You can’t just jump into the Paralympics or the L.A. Marathon; it requires baby steps,” says Kovach, also a two-time winner of the L.A. Marathon. “The National Veterans Wheelchair Games is a great place to be introduced to sports and not be intimidated. I felt really comfortable because there were more people in wheelchairs than there were able-bodied.”

The “baby steps” are what pull Symons and many of the more than 570 Veteran wheelchair athletes to the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City. Regardless of whether or not the Paralympics are on an athlete’s radar, the NVWG will most certainly plant a seed for many competitors, who for the first time will discover the endless opportunities – and possibilities – in adaptive sports.

“You have to be persistent about chasing your dreams because if you never fail then you’ll never succeed,” Symons says. “You can’t just jump into a sport and expect to be on the elite team; you have to earn that trust and determination and ultimately be the best you can be.”

The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature 19 wheelchair sporting events and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City.

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.