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.

First-Ever Triathlon Exhibition Comes to 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Swimming event at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.Sixteen Veteran wheelchair athletes will test their strength and endurance in swimming, cycling and road racing at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games’ first-ever Triathlon exhibition.

The three-stage race – featured at the 2016 Games taking place June 27-July 2, in Salt Lake City – will guide participants through a 200M swim, 10K cycling and 2.5K road race. The first-time exhibition event will take place Thurs., June 30, at Liberty Park in downtown Salt Lake City.

“I brought up the idea at the 33rd Games in Tampa of doing triathlon as an exhibition, and leadership helped make that idea a reality quickly,” said Andy MacDonald, associate sports director for Paralyzed Veterans of America and a nine-time Ironman triathlon finisher. MacDonald – who helped stand up and coach the triathlon team at Georgetown University – will serve as head official for the exhibition.

Paratriathlon’s emergence as an adaptive sport is evidenced by its debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Paralympic athletes will compete in a sprint distance race involving a 750M swim, 20K cycling and 5K road race.

While a new Paralympic sport, the triathlon exhibition at the NVWG will not be limited to elite athletes. The exhibition was designed to help Veterans in every community across the United States seize the opportunity for regular daily exercise as well as participation in cycling races and other community events.

“The hope is that the event educates and motivates our Veterans beyond the week in Salt Lake City,” MacDonald said.

A first-year exhibition sport at the Games, triathlon will be a non-medal event. Racers will compete in either the Quad Open or Para Open, and male and female categories. The race will reflect USA Paratriathlon guidelines for Super Sprint distance.

Athletes will begin the competition with a 200-meter pool swim (two-four laps), after which they will transfer to their wheelchair to transition to the handcycle race. Once there, athletes will transfer to their handcycles and take off for the 10K bike course. After an athlete has crossed the bike dismount line, he or she will transfer back into their wheelchair to travel to their race chair/gear to compete the final 2.5-mile run course.

Athletes are finished once the finish line is crossed in their race chair.

As exhibition events must take place twice at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games before they can be designated as medal events, coordinators will review the 2016 triathlon exhibition and make necessary improvements in advance of a second exhibition at the 37th Games in Cincinnati in 2017, MacDonald said.

It’s unclear how athletes will perform in the exhibition, MacDonald added, as most have competed in swimming, racing or handcycling but not necessarily all three or in a triathlon format. Army Veteran Holly Koester – the first person in a wheelchair to compete in marathons in all 50 states – is sure to stand out in the racing and handcycling portions, he said.

“This is Holly’s first triathlon ever,” he said. “Once she gets on the handcycle and push rim, she’s going to be like Moses separating the Red Sea. She’s a rocket.”

For information and rules on the Triathlon exhibition at the 36th NVWG, click here.

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.

Boccia Opens to Paraplegics at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Boccia at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.

Boccia at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.

For centuries, the Italian game of boccia has been touted as the sport for everyone.

And June 27-July 2, 2016, the precision ball sport will return for its third year as a competitive event at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City. While traditionally offered at the Games to quadriplegics only, boccia as “everyone’s game” will be evident at the 2016 Games as paraplegics in the II, III, IV and V classes will compete in the Game’s boccia event for the first time.

“Expanding the boccia event to include paraplegics is a terrific idea because my philosophy and part of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s mission is about inclusion,” said Al Kovach, national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “Anytime we can include more people, it’s a win-win for everyone, as the more people you have involved in a sport, the better it becomes.”

Few believe that sentiment as it applies to boccia more than Paralyzed Veterans of America National Vice President Charles Brown. A Marine Corps Veteran paralyzed in a diving accident in 1986, Brown was introduced to boccia by a Canadian friend in 2011 and has since risen to the #47 world ranking in the sport.

Brown holds his own personal goals for boccia, including making the U.S. Paralympic boccia team for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But externally, his ultimate goal is to introduce boccia to as many disabled veterans as possible in hopes of boosting U.S. competition on an international level. Expanding the competition to paraplegics at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games is an important first step, he said.

“We have on average about 40 athletes who compete at Nationals to make it on the U.S. team, but if we get more athletes involved, including paraplegics, that could easily jump to 100 or 150,” he says. “I would love to see more paraplegics take an interest in the game and play it on the regional level so they can in turn push for it to become part of the U.S. Boccia Nationals.”

Boccia is a precision ball sport similar to the Italian game of bocce. Boccia – practiced in more than 50 countries most frequently by individuals with neurological conditions involving a wheelchair – consists of four rounds of individual and paired competition and six rounds of team competition.

While once considered a leisure activity, boccia was introduced as a competitive sport at the 1984 Paralympic Games in New York.

Paraplegics and quadriplegics will compete in separate events at the 36th NVWG, with paraplegics opening the competition on Thurs., June 30, at 6:30 p.m. at Hall AB in the convention center. Competition for quadriplegics will follow on Saturday, July 2, at 7:30 a.m., also at Hall AB in the convention center.

“It will be interesting to see how some choose to throw the ball,” Brown says. “Boccia requires very detailed throws and strategy, and paraplegics in the past have shown they are susceptible to many of the same challenges in the game as quadriplegics.”

Competition aside, Marine Corps Veteran Judi Ruiz is thrilled to see the expansion of a sport she has helped coach over the past year to Veterans of all ages and levels of disability at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Medical Center in Chicago. The Salt Lake City Games will mark Ruiz’s third year of competition in the sport.

“I’ve seen Veterans who believed they could not through the ball, and suddenly the ball is in the middle of the court,” she says. “Boccia is amazing because of the rehabilitative benefits, as participants use their arms, hand-eye coordination, strategy and cognitive ability. They come in quiet and reserved, and before long, they can’t wait to team up and compete. It’s obvious why boccia has grown so much in popularity. Everyone loves it.”

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.

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.


Paralympic Powerlifting Replaces Bench Press at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games


Image courtesy of

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) are once again evolving in an effort to open up more opportunities and boost competition for Veterans involved in adaptive lifting.

The 36th NVWG – taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City – will for the first time replace the traditional weightlifting event with powerlifting, consistent with the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) rules and standards for the sport.

“Periodically event standards change at the National and Paralympic competitions,” said Tom Brown, founder of the NVWG and consultant for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “As a rule, the NVWG changes to meet these standards in order to prepare our Veterans to continue the sport after the Games. We are excited to make the change from bench press to powerlift to enable our Veterans to continue on in the community, national, or Olympic level if they wish.”

Powerlifting differs from weightlifting in the level of lift. Whereas weightlifting’s standards require the safety stand holding the bar in a position one inch from the chest, requiring a lifter to press the bar up and back down on command, powerlifting requires the opposite: lifters start in the top position, take the bar from the rack with arms straight, lower the bar slowly to the chest on command, pause and lift back up before the command to rack the bar. Each powerlifter is allowed three attempts.

“This type of bench press is the current IPC-approved lift for the powerlifting event,” said Charles French, administration manager for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. “This will help us mainstream the lift at the NVWG competition in hope that it will become a sanctioned event and help us identify potential Paralympic-level lifters.”

Most rules for powerlifting will remain the same as those for weightlifting, with the only exceptions being special accommodations for lifting positions and assistive devices used for athletes’ safety. A small amount of lenience will be permitted early on as the NVWG makes the transition, French said.

As the NVWG continues to strive as a pipeline of potential elite athletes, the move to Paralympic powerlifting was the natural course to ensure athletes who are interested in competing learn the rules and strategy and return to their communities committed to training in the sport. The hope is that many local programs will make the transition to powerlifting as well, French said.

“Powerlifting is a great example of where the VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America continues to drive the program,” said Dave Tostenrude, director of the NVWG. “We are committed to finding new challenges for the competitors while bridging the opportunities to the community involvement.”

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Learn more about Paralympic powerlifting (PDF format)

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

Veteran Athletes to Strive, Live, Conquer at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

square-NVWG-ad-v1During the week of June 27, 2016, the letters SLC will take on a meaning above and beyond the acronym for Utah’s scenic capital city.

That’s because more than 600 military Veteran athletes in wheelchairs will gather in Salt Lake City for the 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games, ready to leave their own unique mark on the 2016 Game’s SLC theme: “Strive, Live, Conquer.”

“The organizing committee wanted to come up with words that epitomized our Veterans, some of whom are coming from a very dark or vulnerable place and back to life,” said Jill Atwood, chief communications officer for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. “Each Veteran will define strive, live and conquer differently, but ultimately it means living forward; no longer allowing a disability to define you; living life to the fullest; and overcoming all barriers and obstacles.”

A sub-theme to “Strive, Live, Conquer” at the 36th NVWG is “Games Elevated,” consistent with Salt Lake City’s 4,000-plus foot elevation, scenic snow-capped mountains and presence within the only state that is home to five national parks.

“Our hope is that the competition is elevated as well,” Atwood said.

The 36th annual Games also represent a heightened effort on the part of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America to help Veterans “elevate” their training and competition through the promotion of adaptive sports opportunities in their communities and surrounding areas.

“One of our major goals this year is empowering Veterans to not let their training and competition end at the conclusion of the Games, but to return home with a commitment to get involved in their home communities and focus on fitness and activity,” said Tom Brown, director of the Games for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “‘Strive, Live, Conquer’ is all about taking their game to the next level.”

Among activities that have been “elevated” for the 36th annual Games is the inclusion of foot-powered recumbent cycles to the 10K cycling race event, as well as the shift to the national weightlifting standard of Powerlifting for paraplegic classes.

“Strive, Live, Conquer for the 2016 NVWG reflects our effort to set the stage for Veterans to push beyond the barriers to greater heights of competition and opportunities in their lives,” said Dave Tostenrude, director of the NVWG. “In 2016, we have expanded our sports opportunities and stepped it up to provide a greater challenge of competition.”

“Strive, Live, Conquer” also will be weaved throughout the Game’s two exhibition events: triathlon and bobsledding. “Both are new and emerging Paralympic sports that introduce Veterans to greater opportunities and adventures that are available to them,” Tostenrude added.

As Salt Lake City was home to the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, a Paralympic theme showcasing bobsledding will be evident in the opening ceremonies and events throughout the week. Army Veteran and two-time Olympic gold medalist in bobsledding Steve Holcomb will be meeting and greeting Veterans and in some cases riding with them down the bobsled track, Atwood said.

“It takes a brave soul to jump into that bobsled,” she said. “That in and of itself plays into the theme because our Veterans have to overcome some fears to discover that they can live life to the fullest as they’re pulling G’s around the corner and flying down the track. It’s in that moment that you’re striving, living and conquering.”

About triathlon, Atwood added, “As an exhibition sport, there won’t be a competition; the only competition Veterans will have is themselves. They’ll be striving, living and conquering any fears they may have – and discovering that they can do this, that they can finish this and that they can be good at it.”

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.