Adults in Wheelchairs Provide Real-Life Examples of What Living Beyond a Disability Means

Like any eight-year-old boy, Gideon loves sports. He’s adventurous and active, bright, funny, and one-of-a-kind. He loves art and music; especially singing and dancing to Maroon 5’s song, “Moves Like Jagger.” He also has Cerebral Palsy. Yet, that doesn’t stop him from competing. Through adaptive sports and organizations like TOPSoccer, Miracle League and Greater Cincinnati Adaptive Sports Club, Gideon plays everything from baseball to soccer to basketball.

“Just because your child might have a disability doesn’t mean they aren’t a kid, first and foremost,” said Gideon’s mother, Sara. “Gideon is an eight-year-old boy who wants to play and do EVERYTHING. He just happens to be in a wheelchair. There will be things he might not ever be able to do—any child will have to face that truth—but being part of a team, scoring a goal, hitting a home run or sinking that last minute buzzer shot, those are things Gideon will experience!”

As the National Veterans Wheelchair Games comes to Cincinnati, Gideon will get to experience the Games and Kid’s Day for the first time. For Sara, that means he’ll get to see grown-ups in wheelchairs who are thriving and providing visual examples for her son that he can be more than just his disability. For Gideon, “he’s just excited to get out there and play,” says Sara.

Karla Clay – The Evolution of an Athlete

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete: Karla Cole Clay
Hometown: Memphis, Tennessee
Current location: Dallas, Texas
Age: 57
Military Branch/Years of Service: Air Force/4
Years at NVWG: 3
2017 Events: bowling, 100 meter race, discus

Growing up, Karla Cole Clay was more involved in music and performing arts than sports. Valedictorian of her high school class of 1978, Karla attended Christian Brothers College (now University) in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, on an Air Force ROTC scholarship.

“I thought, I’ll give them a commitment of four years and they’ll pay for college. That sounds like a good deal. October 26, 1982 was my first day of active duty. On October 25, 1986 I resigned my commission. I was promoted to Captain a few months earlier—I had actually made Captain early—so people were stunned when I got out, but I fulfilled my commitment like I said I would and then I walked away.”

Karla served as commissary officer at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Washington and, later, at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Montana. While at Malmstrom, she assisted the Commander of Air Force Commissary Service on inspections at other commissaries, and was eventually sent on temporary duty to the commissary at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas. Her husband was returning from duty in Korea to begin law school in Austin, which made it the perfect time for temporary duty to be changed into a permanent assignment. Based on improvements she and her team made to the commissary, Karla was selected as Air Force Commissary Service Junior Officer of the Year and promoted to Captain. After leaving the Air Force in 1986, she pursued her marketing career, working in sales management for a number of consumer product companies.

After experiencing periodic symptoms—tingling in her feet, vertigo—for more than a decade, an MRI in 2001 diagnosed Karla with MS. She continued to work another ten years, but stayed “in the closet” about her diagnosis, only telling family and close friends because she was unsure how it would impact her career. As symptoms mounted, she ultimately had to face reality and stop working. Upon learning that she was eligible for care at the VA, she enrolled and was using a wheelchair from the VA when a physical therapist suggested she look into getting a custom wheelchair.

“They even had my favorite color. They give you a brochure and you pick it out like you pick out a car. I just got new wheels with blue spokes, so now I’m really looking sharp.”

A self-proclaimed “wheelchair potato,” Karla was shocked when people suggested she participate in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas. Hesitant at first, she eventually signed up for racing, javelin and bowling, and became hooked on adaptive sports, particularly strength training.

“I began strength training with the VA kinesiology therapist and quickly realized that I like to challenge myself and lift more or do more sets and improve each time I go. I’ve lost weight and toned up. Two years ago, at the age of 55, my transformation from non-athlete to NVWG medalist began several months before the Games in Dallas. Each week I did two hours of strength training with a VA kinesiology therapist and two hours of track and field practice with two VA recreation therapists. I was stunned when I noticed muscles two months later—biceps and triceps I hadn’t seen before. I keep teasing friends that I’m going to walk around in sleeveless shirts even in the winter because I really do like the way my arms look now!”

She gives a lot of the credit for her success to the team at the Dallas VA SCI (Spinal Cord Injury) clinic.

“I couldn’t have competed without the coordinated efforts of the outstanding Dallas VA SCI clinic team. The physiatrist who did my first NVWG physical sent me to a kinesiology therapist for strength training, and two recreation therapists taught me how to play boccia and throw the discus and javelin. Also, a physical therapist and an occupational therapist worked together to equip my chair with additional support devices for racing.”

Getting involved in the Games got Karla more involved in Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans, PVA). She now volunteers at the SCI Internet Cafe at the Dallas VA, volunteering as a host and helping guests use the computers. She got to try out adaptive rowing through a partnership between Paralyzed Veterans and Dallas United Crew and participated in Walk MS with the Dallas VA MS support group’s Veteran Strong team that was sponsored by the Lone Star PVA. Up next, she’s looking forward to tackling adaptive rock climbing at the NVWG Expo.

“If you’d told me I’d be doing all these things 10 years ago, I would’ve thought you were crazy. I’d never heard of boccia nor seen a javelin or discus in person. Getting involved with adaptive sports and Paralyzed Veterans changed my life. I’ve come out of my shell and met many great people, reaped the rewards of volunteering, gotten in shape, learned so much—especially about myself—and even have three gold medals, a silver medal and a bronze medal, thanks to the NVWG. The flame was lit in me back in 2015 and I’m going strong!”

Torch Passes to 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Cincinnati

NVWG 2016_basketball and flagAs the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) came to a close on Sat., July 1, the focus quickly shifted to the 2017 Games in Cincinnati.

Nearly 600 athletes watched as the 36th Games came to a close and the torch was passed to the Cincinnati delegation planning the 37th Games coming to the Buckeye state July 17-22, 2017.

“The 37th Games in Cincinnati will be in the home of so many of established athletes who have participated in the Games for a number of years,” said Ellen Graf-Jansen, an administrative officer at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center. “The whole concept and feel of the Games is nothing new to us.”

While the official theme and logo are still being determined, the underlying theme will be Cincinnati’s status as “Porkopolis” – a name that dates back to the 1850s when it was designated as the largest pork-producing city in the world.

“Cincinnati is known as Porkopolis due to the German immigrants who put our town together,” Graf-Jansen said. “Our theme will center around pigs.”

The 37th Games also will be defined by its display of the color purple, consistent with the military’s significance of the color as well as Cincinnati’s other nickname as “The Queen City,” for its early origins of proud citizens who dubbed it the “Fair Queen of the West.”

“Participants will be treated like royalty at the Cincinnati Games,” Graf-Jansen said.

Triathlon will make its second debut as an exhibition sport at the 37th Games. The other exhibition sport is still being reviewed, but two possible options will be pickleball or lacrosse, Graf-Jansen said.

Ohio is also known for its annual Buckeye Wheelchair Games, which take place each spring for Veterans as well as adults and children in wheelchairs to enjoy two days of adaptive sports. The event – part of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s national air rifle circuit – is considered a precursor to the NVWG.

In March 2017, leading up to the Games, Cincinnati will host the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which presents award-winning films by and about people with disabilities. Cincinnati was the second city after New York to begin hosting the festival, and in 2014, the city became the national headquarters for the film festival.

“There will be a Veterans film featured at the ReelAbilities festival, and we’ll also feature a Veterans panel to speak about disabled Veterans issues and the Games,” Graf-Jansen said. “All of the people working on ReelAbilities will transition to being volunteers for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.”

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

“Selfless” Describes 2016 Spirit of the Games Award Winner Jeff DeLeon

36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Spirit of the Games Award Winner Jeff DeLeon

36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Spirit of the Games Award Winner Jeff DeLeon

Navy Veteran Jeff DeLeon longs for the day when extraordinary becomes the new normal.

A glimpse of that extraordinary is something DeLeon witnesses each year as he competes alongside his fellow disabled Veterans at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). But as the 36th NVWG closed on Sat., July 1, in Salt Lake City, DeLeon’s own brand of extraordinary will be on display as he accepts the 2016 Spirit of the Games award.

“If everyone did what they were capable of, it wouldn’t be seen as amazing; it’d just be normal,” DeLeon says. “My hope is to inspire more people to take those extra steps to do the things they never thought possible.”

For DeLeon, things he never thought possible were opened at his first NVWG year in 2009, and in the true Spirit of the Games, DeLeon has been paying his novice year forward ever since. In 2013, after serving as President of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Oregon Chapter, DeLeon stood up Veterans for Mobility-Impaired America (VMIA), which empowers Veterans to serve their communities by helping non-Veterans with disabilities who do not have the same access to adaptive sports and equipment.

“Part of the rehabilitation process is making a difference in someone else’s life,” he says. “And by doing that, we’re going to make the world a better place.”

DeLeon traces his own journey back to the recreational therapists, coaches, friends and family members who made a difference in his life after a car accident in 1999 left him a T-6 paraplegic.

“Jeff has overcome a lot in his life personally and has used adaptive sports and recreation as a tool to rediscover himself,” said VA recreational therapist Carrie Booker. “He’s selfless; he’s always welcoming others with open arms.”

For Booker, DeLeon is a Veteran she can always rely on to go the extra mile – literally. DeLeon is known for driving hundreds of miles to meet a newly injured Veteran to encourage, coach and share equipment, she says, and he brings the same spirit each year to the NVWG, where he is known by his fellow athletes as humble, supportive and fiercely competitive. DeLeon now boasts more than 40 medals from the Games, including 37 gold.

At the 36th Games, one of DeLeon’s standout moments was a 10-run rally in the 7th inning with his softball team facing two outs. It was DeLeon’s three-run home run that led his team to an unlikely victory.

“I watched his spirit lead his softball team in one of the most historic comebacks in Games history,” said Bob Crowe, softball official for the NVWG, who nominated DeLeon for the award. “Jeff is a tireless, selfless individual who embodies what all athletes should strive for: excellence on and off the athletic field.”

DeLeon’s natural athletic ability and hard work are what have earned him participation with U.S. Paralympics throwing javelin and discus, and helped him train tirelessly for his ultimate goal of becoming a Paralympian in air pistols or archery for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But even with the Paralympics on his radar, the Navy Veteran will abruptly stop thinking about his own goals to help a fellow disabled Veteran discover their own.

“I’ll do whatever it is someone wants to do, whether hunting, fishing, tennis, even crocheting,” he says. “It’s all about building relationships, getting out there and giving up the excuses as to why you can’t do something.”

It’s that spirit that DeLeon brings to the novices at the NVWG – and makes him more than worthy of the Spirit of the Games award, Booker said.

“Jeff always makes sure the novices on his team get more than their minimal playing time,” Booker said. “He has this tremendous positive attitude, and he’s sort of everywhere; it’s like there’s 10 of him running around. He’s always making other people’s experiences memorable.”

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

Kids Day Opens Adaptive Sports to Children with Disabilities

Kids Day at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.

Kids Day at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.

Sixteen children with disabilities gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center Thursday to be mentored by Veterans whose lives speak to the life-changing power of adaptive sports.

Kids Day – held as part of the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City – is now in its 16th year. After being led in warm-up exercises, kids with varying types and levels of disability were cheered through the slalom – a challenging obstacle course for wheelchair athletes – t-ball and basketball.

“One of the things that happens at these types of events is people always talk about how Veterans inspire them, well, we get inspiration, too, when we see kids who are dealing with circumstances probably far greater than being disabled by the military because for them, it’s life-long,” said Sherman Gillums, Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “A lot of these kids are very sharp; they’ve been problem-solving for a long time. And if they take that into adulthood and into their career, they can do anything.”

For many children and parents, Kids Day was their first experience being around a large group of individuals in wheelchairs, let alone trying adaptive sports. The hope is that all young participants will return home equipped with enough knowledge and resources to pursue adaptive activities in their communities.

“It is amazing, truly amazing; this is the funnest thing he has done,” said Roger, father to Jacob. “You should have seen him out there, he had a blast going over all the jumps and doing all the obstacles. He had a blast.”

“It was awesome,” Jacob added.

Army Veteran Shaun Castle, now in his second year as a Kids Day mentor, said the experience naturally moved more personal in Salt Lake City, to the point where he was not only encouraging the children but motivating them to pursue activities beyond the one-hour NVWG event.

“Wheelchair basketball has taken me around the world to things I never dreamed, and it all started with trying wheelchair sports,” Castle said. “This year involved a deeper connection with the kids who may not have found that yet. Rather than just showing them how to shoot a basketball, I was able to speak to them about how it can change their life – that this moment could be one that changes their life forever.”

Kids Day is about more than giving disabled children an opportunity to see what’s possible; it’s also about inspiring Veteran athletes to take what they see and learn at the event and pay it forward in their own communities. Many Veterans tout Kids Day as their favorite event at the Games, evidenced by its popularity and long wait lists to fill around XX mentorship spots each year.

“These athletes, whether they’re novices or experts, have all been in much the same position as these kids, even though their injuries did not come until adulthood,” said Dr. Ken Lee, medical director for the NVWG, who returned to his iconic role as emcee for the Kids Day event. “The Veterans know how these kids feel and how the parents feel, and to relay what they have learned to both the child and the parents, I’m pretty sure that is even better than receiving a gold medal.”

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.

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Give Athlete Judi Ruiz Platform for Positive Change in Chicago

Marine Corps Veteran and Chicago native Judi Ruiz

Marine Corps Veteran and Chicago native Judi Ruiz

It was 2003 when Marine Corps Veteran Judi Ruiz believed multiple sclerosis (MS) had claimed everything she had.

A native of Chicago, Ruiz served as a criminal investigator with the Army for six years, transitioning in 1980 to a position as a federal detective with the Defense Department and Air Force Reserves. In 1989, she shifted careers to become a regional sales manager for the state of California.

But in 2002, Ruiz began to experience symptoms that doctors believed were consistent with a stroke. Imaging tests, however, revealed that Ruiz’s symptoms — weakness, cognitive problems and loss of balance – were connected to multiple sclerosis (MS).

“I lost my ability to work; our family had to sell everything and move back to Chicago,” she says. “I’d gone from making six figures to being on disability and losing my health insurance. I felt like I’d lost everything, including myself.”

But it was the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Medical Center in Chicago that Ruiz credits for saving her life. She transferred her care to Hines, where she received her first wheelchair and was asked for the first time if she had any interest in trying adaptive sports.

“I didn’t know anything about sports,” Ruiz says. “I don’t like competition; I don’t like anything about it. So I said ‘no.’”

Yet Ruiz’s “no” fell flat the moment she realized adaptive sports could be an alternative to clinic therapy. “I went to an air rifle event at Hines the following week, and it was like I learned to fly,” she says. “It completely changed my life.”

The burst of confidence found in air rifles inspired Ruiz just months later to travel to Anchorage, Alaska for her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Now 10 years later, Ruiz has not missed a single NVWG since. She’s competed in events including archery, air rifles, bowling, discus, javelin, 200M racing, slalom and boccia, and has medaled in every event.

Still, for Ruiz, the Games have little to do with accolades. Instead, her goal each year is solely to remain healthy enough to attend. “When I get on that plane and touch down at the next Wheelchair Games location, I’ve already accomplished my goal,” she says. “Any awards beyond that are just a bonus.”

The Games also represent a time for cross-mentorship that Ruiz says is unmatched by any other event or experience. A fellow Veteran can be firing off tips as he fires his air rifle and vice versa, she says. As a recent surgery on her left hand will require competing in most events one-handed at the 36th Games, Ruiz says it’s that cross-mentorship that will make a difference. “I’m not worried because I know I’m likely to meet someone who has some good one-handed tips,” she says.

It’s those tips, as well as the mentorship, camaraderie and inspiration of the Games that Ruiz carries back home to Chicago each year as she volunteers as a mentor, peer counselor and coach at the Hines VAMC and in her local community. “I don’t just limit myself to Veteran events,” she says. “The goal of the Games and Veterans programs is to learn something and push yourself out in the community to help educate them on what you need and what you can do.”

Ruiz’s role in the community was especially evident in 2012, when she spoke up about the lack of accessibility at an archery range at one of Chicago’s parks. In turn, the city’s parks district used her recommendations to revamp the park’s accessibility, and in 2013, Ruiz was invited to cut the ribbon and raise the American flag at the park’s opening ceremony.

“When you get out into the community, you have no idea what’s waiting for you until you tell them what you need,” she says. “And the Hines VA has given me that voice.”

For Ruiz, her 11th consecutive NVWG offers another platform for her to use that voice to encourage her fellow Veterans and speak up for change. Cheering her on will be her partner and caregiver, Gladys, who endured with her through the early days of an MS diagnosis and has traveled with her to every NVWG event.

And with hindsight always being 20/20, Ruiz no longer believes MS took everything she had. Instead, she gained everything: not only the best health of her life but a positive purpose for herself. And if any other Veteran believes an injury means their life is over, Ruiz assures them that it’s only just beginning.

“The biggest accomplishment for me is being healthy enough to have to learned to focus on my abilities and not my disabilities,” she says. “I can do anything I want to do and pay that forward to someone else who is now in the place I was – while maybe not with the same symptoms or diagnosis – to come full circle and discover that in every negative there’s a positive. For me, I owe everything I am to the Hines VA Hospital.”

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.

Competition Drives National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete Mike Johnson

Marine Corps Veteran and NVWG Athlete Mike Johnson.

Marine Corps Veteran and NVWG Athlete Mike Johnson.

Marine Corps Veteran Mike Johnson hates losing.

That competitive spirit is one Johnson says is inherent in his personality, one that fueled him through his early years of playing sports and pitting himself against his siblings. Yet with a life lived with a sizable measure of loss, Johnson had to ensure loss did not become the word that defined him.

A native of West Virginia to a Marine Corps father, Johnson – inspired by Robin Moore’s bestselling book, “The Green Berets” – enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966. The military seemed a natural course for the college dropout, and by 1967, he deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines to Da Nang, Vietnam.

But on Jan. 31, 1968, Johnson endured the greatest loss of his life: a land mine exploded, requiring surgeons to amputate both of his legs, several fingers and a thumb. He also endured trauma to his brain and eyes as well as several shrapnel wounds.

“That competitive spirit – and a strong foundation of family – is what carried me,” he says. “It’s what has driven me since I was a kid.”

Competition is what drove Johnson to endure more than a year of rehabilitation and move back to Utah, where he earned his degree from Brigham Young University, met and married his wife, Jan, and became a teacher. He and Jan – now married more than 40 years – also reared eight children.

“There was too much at stake in my life and with my family; I couldn’t afford to lose,” he says. “I still can’t. I’ll keep fighting and competing until I’m no longer around.”

For Johnson, fighting to overcome and adapt to his injury took far more than a mental shift. A born athlete, he knew physical fitness would play a key role in maintaining his health and quality of life. He was not out of the hospital two years before he started working out at his local YMCA. It was there that a friend shared about a wheelchair basketball team in Denver, and Johnson – assuring basketball runs in his veins – was quick to act on the opportunity.

“Once I got into the competition, I just went nuts,” he says. “It helped so many of us get past our disabilities and helped me get my aggressive energy out.”

Basketball was the gateway to other sports, but as Johnson and his family moved to Alaska for 10 years, adaptive sports opportunities were limited to playing basketball with the kids. But in 1996, Johnson with his family traveled to Seattle to compete in his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG).

“The Games are full of amazing athletes who just happen to be disabled,” he says. “And the Games reminded me and continue to remind me that if they can do it, so can I.”

Johnson attended his second Games in San Diego the following year, but after moving his family back to Riverton, Utah, and continuing his packed schedule of teaching, coaching boys’ and girls’ basketball, and raising his family, he had no choice but to take a break.

Yet Johnson never took the NVWG off his radar. In 2015, he traveled to Dallas to compete in the 35th annual Games. And June 27-July 2, 2016, he will compete in his fourth-ever Games in Salt Lake City – his home turf.

“I get more inspiration out of watching my fellow Veterans compete, achieve and accomplish in one week than I do in an entire year,” says Johnson, who will compete in air rifles, handcycling, 9-ball, slalom and table tennis at the 36th annual NVWG. “The strength they offer me is unmatched.”

And while he loves to compete and beat his fellow Veterans, Johnson assures he will never cease speaking encouragement into the lives of his brothers and sisters in arms. That encouragement is one he carries to the Salt Lake City NVWG and beyond.

“It’s easy to say don’t give up, but it’s harder to do,” he says. “Every day is a challenge to determine if you’re going to get up or not, go to work or not. Sports has helped me live my life and compete to the point where I’m not going to miss work or avoid my responsibilities. That would be easy way out, and there’s too much at stake in life to go the easy way.”

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.