Jeff DeLeon: The Spirit of the Games

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete: Jeff DeLeon
Hometown: Turner, Oregon
Current location: Salem, Oregon
Age: 37
Military Branch/Years of Service: Navy/2 years
Years at NVWG: 8
2017 Events: softball, basketball, slalom, archery, table tennis

It is no surprise Jeff DeLeon received the Spirit of the Games Award at last year’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Talk to him for just a few minutes and you can hear the passion he has for PVA, the Games and the athletes who participate.

“NVWG is a life-changing event. It opened up a bigger connection for me with other people in wheelchairs. I look forward to getting together with old friends and meeting new people. The Games showcase our independence and ability to do the things people think can’t be done by someone in a wheelchair. The more people see us doing it, the more normal it becomes. That’s how I’ve lived my life since the injury, pushing those limits.”

Sports have always been a big part of Jeff’s life. Growing up in Turner, Oregon, a small, no-stoplight-town outside Salem, he excelled as a pitcher and first baseman. The military also played a large role—his uncles were Marines, his grandfather was a Marine, Jeff wanted to be one too. His mother convinced him to look into all the branches of service. Six months after graduating high school, Jeff joined the Navy as an aviation electrician. He served for two years before a car accident early one morning left him a T-6 paraplegic.

“Me and some buddies went off the road returning to base. We crashed and the vehicle rolled a few times. I knew I had broke my back. I had a collapsed lung and felt like I couldn’t breathe and like I was dying slowly. A guy comes over and tells me an ambulance is coming and I’m trying to say some words to him but he can’t hear me. I’m finally able to push out the words “kill me” which was crazy, you know, but I literally felt like I was dying, and it was very slow and painful. A couple minutes went by before the ambulance got there. It felt like forever.”

The ambulance transported him to Fresno Medical Center. Conscious throughout, Jeff kept apologizing to the EMTs and the hospital workers for causing them extra work. After surgery, his social worker got him transported to the VA in Seattle for rehab.

Jeff’s resilient spirit never let him give up, even when he was in a TLSO brace from his neck to his pelvis. He worked hard at his physical therapy and pushed himself to get better. After returning to Oregon, Jeff joined in pick-up basketball games at the local gym, going up against standing players.

“At first people go easy on you because you’re the poor guy in the wheelchair. Then you start hitting some threes and stealing the ball and talking trash. Just to get them a little upset so they’ll play hard, because the harder they play the better I’m gonna get.”

Jeff’s recreational therapist at the time, NVWG Director Dave Tostenrude, introduced him to adaptive sports and convinced him to sign up for the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic. Jeff did the two-day, 204-mile course on his handcycle, amazing the other cyclists. But it would be another seven years before Jeff’s first time participating at NVWG.

After participating in eight Games, Jeff doesn’t deny his competitive spirit. However, don’t be surprised to find him encouraging other athletes to do their best or sharing his secrets for success.

“I want to push you to beat my best time, but I’m also the guy that’ll share my tips and tricks. If you beat me I’ll pat you on the back and give you a hug and congratulate you. The Games do get competitive but they were founded on rehabilitation and that’s what they’re still used for, rehabilitation through sport and being around other veterans.”

That sportsmanship and mentoring won Jeff the Spirit of the Games Award after only seven years. Unlike the awards for speed or strength, the Spirit goes to the athlete who most embodies what the Games are all about, not just for the week of events but throughout the year.

“Receiving the Spirit of the Games Award was one of the highlights of my life, to be honored in that way, at those games, where so many people have been mentors. I was stunned. That was one of the rare times that I’ve ever been speechless. If I had taken a moment to think, I would’ve thanked all the people who helped me get through rehab, PVA, the VA, my doctors, my social worker. They were a huge part in getting me to where I am.”

In 2015 Jeff started a foundation in Mexico—fundación con orgullo de León—or The Pride of the Lion, a non-profit that provides necessary resources and assistance to people from low-income regions, specifically persons with disabilities, in order to achieve social integration.

The name, by the way, is a play on words. Jeff’s last name, DeLeon, means the lion, and a pack of lions is called a pride.

Sua Tuimalealiifano: Game Changer

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete: Sualauvi “Sua” Tuimalealiifano
Hometown: American Samoa and Kalihi, Hawaii
Current location: Tampa, Florida
Age: 38
Military Branch/Years of Service: Army/13
Years at NVGA: 2
2017 Events: rugby, slalom, seated shot put, seated discus, bench competition

Born in American Samoa, Sualauvi “Sua” Tuimalealiifano and his family moved to Kalihi, Hawaii, when he was six. After staying with various family members they finally found a home of their own. The second oldest of six siblings, Sua grew up playing the role of protector, taking care of his brothers and sisters, and fending off bullies. That natural leadership and desire to serve others led him to join the Army after high school.

“I loved the ability to serve. A lot of my motivation comes from the memories and the feelings and the emotions of the past. I didn’t really understand it until later but one of my motivations was to free the oppressed. The oppressed is where I put myself when I see pictures of my upbringing and how I look back on it and that’s exactly what it was. We were in that group. Joining the service made me feel like I was relieving that. No more bullies. No more bad guys. No more crap.”

After beginning as a reservist, Sua transitioned to active duty, entered airborne school and then the Civil Affairs program at Ft Bragg. Deployed to Afghanistan in 2006, Sua served two Special Operations tours before being injured in a firefight outside Firebase Cobra in the Oruzgan province.

“After being thrown off the back of the Humvee, from the top of the M240 swivel reacting to enemy fire, I landed on my back with over 100 pounds of gear and heard a hallow twig snap from within my ears; not outside but within.”

His team helped him up and they fought their way back to base, but Sua continued to experience severe neck pain for weeks. At the time, the base was in such hostile territory that the only personnel flying out to the Green Zone were critical cases. Three months later, Sua woke one morning and went to get out of his bed, which was raised four feet off the floor. The entire lower half of his body didn’t move, but his upper body already in motion, gravity did the rest. Sua crashed to the floor, hitting his head against the nightstand. The firefight had fractured Sua’s neck and the fall out of bed disconnected what was fractured, fully breaking his neck and leaving him paralyzed.

After surgery in Germany, Sua flew stateside, first to Walter Reed followed by a year at the Tampa VA before the Shepard Center in Atlanta, all while suffering “the worst pain I’ve ever been in; absolute torture, excruciating, day in and day out.” He and his wife, Shannon, stayed with her parents in North Carolina for a few months before moving to Hawaii to be close to Sua’s family.

The VA staff connected Sua to Paralyzed Veterans of America, but it was the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) team of the Warrior Games that introduced him to the adaptive sports community and opened up a whole new world. Since 2015, Sua has competed in the Dixie Games, the Invictus Games, the Warrior Games (twice), and this will be his second year at the NVWG. For Sua, adaptive sports has been a gamechanger.

“The first two to three years were rough. Getting involved in adaptive sports made things better. There was now something I was able to do again. It opened me up. Having a lot of people being helpful and supportive helped me to stay the course. I was exposed to a lot of different people, different groups, different injuries that I had no idea were out there. The way I saw myself was disheartening. It was good for me to break through that. Now it’s a lot better than the state of mind I was in earlier. Sports has done a great deal for me—seeing that I can do something, because now there’s something to look forward to. Even better than that has been being back with the same group of folks I was with for most of my life, being back with the military.”

Now settled in Florida, Sua and his wife, Shannon, stay busy with their three children’s school events and practices, as well as Sua’s busy training schedule.

“I just started sailing and am moving on to an advanced course. We just finished our wheelchair rugby season and I’m trying to find that next competitive drive. I’m getting better at handcycling. I love wheelchair rugby, but handcycling—just riding and getting out there and being free—has been amazing. If I had never gone to the Games I wouldn’t know about any of this.”

Sharona Young: Unstoppable Drive

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete: Sharona Young
Hometown: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Current location: Orlando, Florida
Age: 35
Military Branch/Years of Service: Navy/14
Years at NVWG: 2
2017 Events: boccia, shot put, bowling, table tennis, nine ball

Growing up, Sharona Young thought about going into the medical field or possibly working with computers. The youngest of five siblings and an honor roll student, she was a homebody who dreamed of travelling.

“When I was a senior I decided I wanted to see the world. I called every recruiter in the phone book and the Navy guys were the first to call me back. I didn’t even realize there was a difference between the branches!”

After boot camp in Illinois and training in Mississippi, Sharona served as the disbursing clerk aboard the USS Bataan in Norfolk, Virginia. On board, she found the cure for her wanderlust.

“I really enjoyed it, being out to sea. I got to travel a lot. We did a couple tours throughout the Mediterranean Sea. We went to countries like Greece, Spain, Italy, the Middle East, the Suez Canal, Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Never once did she think about becoming an athlete, but being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in her 30s changed all that.

“I was diagnosed in 2013 while I was working for the VA. I was recalled to active duty, stationed in England when I started having issues with my left leg and foot. I was on crutches from foot surgery when I started experiencing numbness in my hands and arms. At first the doctors thought I had a pinched nerve, but an MRI showed inflammation and lesions on my spinal cord and scarring on my brain.”

The diagnosis was a lot for both Sharona and her 11-year-old daughter, Taylor, to absorb. MS symptoms like fatigue, vision problems and difficulty walking effected Sharona’s ability to get up and go. They do still enjoy cycling together and Taylor is homeschooled by her mom, but even with literature and videos from the MS Society, seeing her mother in a wheelchair was a huge adjustment.

“MS is an invisible illness. People don’t understand why you’re in a wheelchair when you weren’t the last time they saw you. There are a lot of questions. And looks. They don’t see a visible scar, so they don’t understand.”

While Sharona was transitioning out of the Navy, one of her counselors suggested she try out for the Warrior Games. Having never played sports before—unless you count that semester of badminton in college!—she tried out for swimming, cycling and archery, and was accepted for both swimming and cycling.

“I fell in love with the challenge of it. MS is so unpredictable. It’s always changing. Adaptive sports gives me a reason to keep getting out and training and trying and pushing myself. It’s like therapy. It takes my mind off of stuff for a little bit and pushes me to achieve a goal. It gives me a chance to show Taylor that just because you have a disability doesn’t mean you can’t get out and do sports and enjoy your life.”

Sharona got involved with the Orlando PVA after a Wounded Warrior suggested she look up her local chapter. She currently serves as the Secretary on their Board of Directors.

“They were pretty excited to see me. They don’t have a lot of females and I’m younger than the majority of our chapter.”

Participation in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games wasn’t far behind. Sharona was impressed by the diversity of veterans participating and the camaraderie she found in competition; something she’d love to share with newly injured vets considering participating.

“Don’t be afraid to try the Games. Don’t be afraid to get involved. Go for it, push yourself, have fun. More than anything, just enjoy it. Just come out, try it, have fun and learn something new.”

Shaun Castle: When Talent Meets Dedication

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete: Shaun Castle
Hometown: Elmira and Buffalo, New York
Current location: Birmingham, Alabama
Age: 35
Military Branch/Years of Service: Army/4 ½
Years at NVWG: 5
2017 Events: basketball, softball, discus, javelin, shot put and swimming 50 yard butterfly and 100 yard freestyle

Coming from a military family, Shaun Castle always planned on enlisting in the Army. He just planned on going to college first. An athlete from an early age, he had basketball scholarships lined up when he blew out his knee late in high school. With college postponed, Shaun joined the Army just shy of his 19th birthday. A few years into his service, he got thrown from a Humvee during a training accident, hit his lower back against the brush guard, cracked two vertebrae and herniated three discs. Two spinal surgeries later, Shaun met Anthony Seale from Paralyzed Veterans of America.

“I woke up after my second surgery and there was Anthony. He said, ‘Shaun, I’m from the Paralyzed Veterans of America, my name is Anthony Seale. You don’t have to worry anymore. We’re going to take care of you.’ Since that day they’ve been like an angel on my shoulder.”

Flash-forward a few years and Shaun had a near-fatal allergic reaction to his pain medication. Unable to take any pain killers, a physical therapist suggested Shaun try adaptive sports. She referred him to the Lakeshore Foundation, a physical rehabilitation and Paralympic training facility close to Shaun’s home in Birmingham, Alabama. The moment he saw the Paralympic banners, Shaun decided he would become a Paralympic athlete, and began training and participating in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

“Sports has always been a constant. I was an athlete from very young. I have two older brothers and four older sisters. I never lacked for people to play baseball or basketball with me. I’ve always been driven and will practice and work ad nauseam. That work ethic has stuck with me throughout my life. If you want something you have to work at it. When I started adaptive athletics, I had the same mentality. Talent doesn’t always beat hard work if hard work works harder than talent. You may be more talented than me, but I’m going to outwork you.”

That dedication and determination would eventually bring Shaun to the University of Alabama, where he’s currently finishing his degrees in modern media and leadership while also playing on the UA wheelchair basketball team.

“I play for the University of Alabama and it is a dream come true. It is literally what I thought I lost when I blew out my knee and couldn’t go to college. I thought I’d go to college first and then go into the Army but I ended up doing it in reverse. I was able to still have that moment in my life because of adaptive athletics and the Wheelchair Games.”

Shaun’s involvement with The Crimson Tide won’t end with graduation. During a photo shoot with Mike Mouron, Chairman of Capstone Real Estate Investments and UA alum, Shaun talked to him about adaptive sports on campus. Twenty minutes later, Mouron and his wife had become the largest donors to the University for its plans to build world-class training facility and arena dedicated to adaptive athletics, including an NCAA regulation game venue for wheelchair basketball. With its completion in late fall 2017, University of Alabama will be the first school in the country to have an arena dedicated strictly to collegiate adapted athletics.

“I’m very proud to have been the catalyst for the arena. Perception is reality and on the University of Alabama campus, sports is king. To have our own arena and know that I was part of a legacy left to be viewed as legitimate athletes, it’s a huge step forward and a huge thing for me personally. To bring adaptive sports front and center and say these aren’t wheelchair athletes, these are athletes who happen to be in wheelchairs. It is a huge thing for me.”

So who would this competitive, driven, star athlete want to go one-on-one with on the court?

“You’ve got to give me two! The greatest player I’ve ever seen is Michael Jordan. I grew up when Jordan was at his height. No one was driven to win like him. To get to play one-on-one with a guy who doesn’t just love to win but hates to lose; to be on the court with a guy who has that much passion, who’s that driven, that intense…I’d lose, of course, but it’d be unbelievable! The other is probably the greatest all-around player—and he’s out of Cincinnati—Oscar Robertson. The Big O. Mr. Triple-Double. Absolutely, Oscar Robertson.”

After graduation, Shaun and his wife Stephanie will move to France or Germany while Shaun plays professional wheelchair basketball. Upon returning to the U.S., Steph will continue teaching kindergarten and Shaun plans to pursue other avenues helping veterans.

“I want to find the best way to make a difference and actually help people, help vets, help Paralyzed Veterans. I’ve got a year, though, before I have to decide what I’m going to do when I become an adult!”

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.