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.