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

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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.

Sports Bring National Veterans Wheelchair Games Novice Dan Alston “Back to Life”

From left to right are: Dan Alston and his wife Veronica with their son and daughter.

From left to right are: Dan Alston and his wife Veronica with their son and daughter.

Adaptive sports helped Army Veteran Dan Alston regain confidence lost in the wake of a life-changing diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in 2008.

For Alston, it took time. He had served 13 years as a 131A Field Artillery Targeting Technician, which took him all over the world and left him with injuries, including back, neck and knee problems as well as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. He continued to serve, but in late 2007, while stationed in South Korea, his legs went numb.

“They did an MRI of my back and all it showed was a bulging disc,” Alston says. “I returned to Ft. Bragg and the feeling returned to my legs, but about a month later, I went out for a run and the right side of my face, arm and chest went numb.”

A back, neck and head MRI revealed lesions consistent with multiple sclerosis (MS). Alston permanently retired in 2013 as a Chief Warrant Officer 2, devastated over the loss of his beloved Army career and the impending promotions of those he had served alongside throughout his career.

“Now all of my classmates are looking at promotions for Chief Warrant Officer 4,” he says. “But they – especially Joshua White – make me feel good by saying that ‘we’ made it; they still make me feel like I’m there.”

Many times, however, that feeling of being there has not been enough. Even before his permanent retirement, Alston went through the natural cycle of depression knowing that MS could claim not only his military career but also his active lifestyle and plans for his family. “For about four years, I wasn’t very involved with my family and friends like I should have been; I was isolated,” he says. “I wondered why MS had happened to me.”

By 2012, Alston started to see a sliver of light after attending a transition training course on computers through the Wounded Warrior Project. While it did not bring him fully out of his isolation and depression, it planted a seed, and in 2014 – after moving with his family to Durham, N.C., and beginning recreational therapy at the Durham VAMC – a fellow veteran gave him a handcycle to try.

Alston began to discover that while he couldn’t change his MS, he could adapt to it. The initial gratification found in a handcycle gave him the confidence to try other sports, namely basketball, bowling and table tennis. While fatigue remains his greatest challenge with MS, Alston says sports tire him but also help him – table tennis in particular – manage challenges like hand-eye coordination.

“Doing sports and events is confidence-building and brings me back to life,” he says. “These are things I thought I would never do again. It’s not like I’m not getting it done; I’m just doing it differently now.”

Alston is also an accomplished artist, taking first place at the Durham VAMC arts festival in 2015 for his drawing of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

“I have trouble with my hands and it’s hard for my brain to focus; it takes me a while to finish one drawing,” he says. “I’m trying to learn every bit I can about my MS and how symptoms come after certain activities.”

The accomplishments in sports and art over the past two years have given Alston the confidence to attend his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City. Alston will compete in bowling, basketball, nine-ball and table tennis.

“I want to experience the Games for myself and decide if it’s something I want to continue doing,” Alston says. “But I expect it to be an awesome time because other veterans have told me such good things about it and how it helps them cope with whatever they’re going through.”

Rolling into his first Games, Alston will not only seek to learn, but encourage, talking with his fellow veterans about how he maintains an active lifestyle through sports participation, family activities and volunteer work at the Durham VAMC and Disabled American Veterans.

“The most important part is to focus on what you can do versus what you can’t,” he says. “Focusing on what you can’t do will only back you into a hole and keep you there. It’s easy to try to focus on the glory days, but you have to focus on the ones in front of you. And don’t do it alone.”

About his family, Alston adds, “I want to thank my wife, Veronica, son, Daniel, daughter, Olivia and all of my closest friends for sticking by my side and never giving up on me.”

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

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

Athlete Village to Boost Engagement at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Kansas veterans at the 2015 NVWG v2Athletes at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City will notice a new feature: the Athlete Village, a central gathering place for Veterans to gather and support one another.

The Athlete Village – in the area adjacent to the exhibit halls of the National Disabled Sports, Recreation and Fitness Expo – will serve as a central gathering place for Veterans to attend medal and awards ceremonies, purchase memorabilia and learn throughout the week about adaptive sports and other opportunities beyond the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

“This is my 23rd year with the Games, and I’ve learned over the years that the Games are not only about the competition,” said Dave Tostenrude, director of the NVWG. “The Games are just one piece of our efforts to support the health and activity of our Veterans, and our goal is that this gathering place will be popular not only for educating them but encouraging them to come together and support one another.”

Medal and awards ceremonies, while traditionally held at specific events, this year will move to the Athlete Village in hopes of generating more spectators. Medals for team events will continue to take place at their respective locations.

“In the past, awards ceremonies often would have few athletes and spectators who came to watch,” said Tom Brown, founder of the NVWG and now consultant for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “The idea is to place these ceremonies in the middle of the Athlete Village in order to boost engagement.”

The Athlete Village also will house the Internet Café, sponsored by HP Enterprises, where Veterans can use one of six computers to access the Internet at any time. A sponsors’ wall also will be featured, as will daily entertainment just outside of the Village location.

“We want our Veterans to be active and engaged,” Brown said. “The Athlete Village is one way we’ll encourage them to do that.”

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 Help Army Veteran Michael Hale Reclaim Active Life

Army Veteran Mike Hale

Army Veteran Mike Hale

Army Veteran Michael Hale never imagined that a wheelchair sports event could dramatically change his life.

But in 2015, Hale traveled to Dallas to attend his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), at first hesitant to believe that wheelchair sports could play an important part in his rehabilitation. In 2014, Hale – who enlisted in the Army in 1975 and served eight years – suffered an aneurysm in his lower aorta. He remained on life support for days, and due to the lack of blood supply to his right leg, doctors had no choice but to amputate it.

“I never expected to experience what I did at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games my first year, but it was amazing,” says Hale, who lives in Yelm, Wash., with his wife of 12 years, Garnelle. “This year, our dining room table is full of our luggage. For me, I only had to go once to know I’ll never stop going.”

For Hale, acquiring a disability later in life hasn’t come easy. Each morning, the challenges begin with intense pain and the realization that another day must pass, lived much differently than the life he’d known prior to his 2014 surgery.

“I wake up most mornings, look over at my prosthetic leg and say to myself, ‘No, not again,’” Hale says. “I still go through depression; it just happens.”

But what Hale initially saw as physical therapy early on in his disability became the mental therapy that continues to lift him through the challenges of each day. A swimmer in high school, Hale began swimming in 2014 as part of his rehabilitation, and suddenly, a new world unbeknownst to him throughout his military career and 36 years running an RV business began to open up.

“Becoming involved in sports was a game-changer,” Hale says. “It’s been more than two years, and now I travel almost 200 miles per week for practice.”

Hale rose to the winner’s podium his novice year in Dallas in 2015, earning silver medals in the 100M track and bowling events. At the 2016 Games in Salt Lake City, he’ll compete in softball, 9-ball, bowling, 100M track and table tennis.

“It’s all about the gold this year,” he says.

Still, while medals and competition are important, Hale has not forgotten the camaraderie and encouragement that can be provided at no better venue than the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. He credits his first NVWG for equipping him with the confidence to coach his fellow amputees and others with disabilities in sports, particularly bowling.

“No one asks for a disability, but once you’re dealt it, you must learn to deal with it,” he says. “A lot of it is in your mind, what you can and can’t do, but there’s something out there for everyone.”

For Hale, the Games are about learning from and sharing with his fellow Veterans, not only about skills and techniques in adaptive sports but about coping with the daily challenges of living with a disability. While fired up about the competition, he’ll move past his own personal events to cheer on his friends and Northwest team members.

“I just got my new prosthetic leg, a new sports chair and a haircut, and I feel like a new man,” Hale says with a laugh. “The VA has invested so much more in me as an athlete this year. The Games have changed my life, and I’m even more excited this year than I was last.”

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.

Games Elevated: How to Beat the Heat, Altitude in Salt Lake City

36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake CityThe 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City will be “Games Elevated,” a play on the city’s high altitude, mountainous terrain and summer temperatures reaching into the high 90s and low 100s. But “elevated” also means athletes with spinal cord injuries and other injuries and conditions will need to take some precautions in order to sustain good physical health and performance.

With temperatures projected up to 101 degrees the week of the Games, the dry heat of Salt Lake City means athletes must remember to drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated.

“Athletes are not going to feel hot in many cases because their sweat evaporates so fast,” said Dr. Kenneth Lee, medical director for the NVWG. “With that evaporation, they dehydrate faster, which means they need to drink more even though they may not feel that they’re sweating it off.”

Athletes traveling to the Games should also remember to bring a light jacket or sweater, as body temperature issues could also arise as athletes travel from the dry heat to indoor air-conditioned areas, Lee added. “In the evenings, it will cool down fast, so athletes should remember to have a jacket or long-sleeve along,” he said.

Salt Lake City boasts an altitude of more than 4,300 feet, and while this is not a level that should be of concern for most athletes, those with high-level injuries or who are prone to altitude sickness should take necessary precautions. One precaution that should be addressed with a doctor prior to the Games is the medication Acetazolamide, which athletes should begin taking two or three days prior to travel to Salt Lake City to aid with altitude sickness, Lee said.

Finally, traveling is always a challenge for many people with disabilities, Lee said, particularly as many athletes have neurogenic and bowel conditions. Many athletes, for example, choose not to eat in order to avoid a potential accident, but athletes should maintain a solid, steady diet throughout their travel.

“Athletes need to be aware that their schedule is changing, their metabolism is going to change, the type of food and amount they will consume will change, and bowel and bladder routine may change as well,” Lee said. “They should figure out from past travel what the best thing is for them to eat to sustain a healthy environment for their bodies.”

Athletes should also fall back on the rehabilitation training they have all had as they adapt to a new environment. An important part of that training is asking for help when needed, Lee said.

“In many cases, athletes are too proud, so they tend not to ask for help,” he said. “But asking for help is part of the rehab process and is part of directing their own care and directing their lives. Travel and living temporarily in other places are challenging, but athletes should talk about the challenges as they come up. It should turn it into an exciting, adventurous challenge.”
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

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

Sport is Secondary for First-Time National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete Danny Dudek

Army Colonel Danny Dudek

Army Colonel Danny Dudek (center) on the podium after accepting his gold medal at the Warrior Games.

For active Army Colonel Danny Dudek, sports are secondary to service.

That’s the mentality he will bring to the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City, where he will compete in his first-ever NVWG with not so much something to prove, but rather, something to learn.

“Sports are secondary to me,” Dudek says. “The National Veterans Wheelchair Games have been on my radar because I want to meet the broader community of veterans in wheelchairs and learn about their life and challenges after the military.”

Dudek understands firsthand the challenges of remaining on active duty with a disability. In 2007, the then-Army Major was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Iraq. In addition to losing his friend and comrade Cpl. Brandon Craig in the blast, Dudek had to face his own life-changing spinal cord injury that left him with little mobility in his legs.

“You have to mourn,” he says. “I didn’t want to accept being an SCI patient who couldn’t use his legs anymore. But then I determined for myself that I would put big goals in front of me and find out if they’re impossible. The thing is, I haven’t found anything impossible yet.”

For Dudek, the first hurdle was remaining on active duty. But by 2009, he was selected as commander of the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he pioneered policy to help injured service members like himself who needed the tools to either remain on active duty or transition into a successful life as a Veteran of the U.S. military. It was in his leadership role that he discovered the value of sports to the rehabilitation of injured soldiers.

By 2012, Dudek moved to the Pentagon to serve as deputy chief of staff at the Army’s Warrior Transition Command. While physically active, Dudek wanted the firsthand experience of what he knew his fellow soldiers and Veterans were relying on to rehabilitate. Just months later, he was off to his first Warrior Games, where he earned one gold and one silver medal in swimming.

“The more active I was, the more I realized things I thought were impossible really weren’t,” says Dudek, who now boasts five gold medals in swimming from two consecutive Warrior Games. “It proved that I could do anything.”

Dudek went on to race in the Marine Corps Marathon, Army Ten-Miler and the Navy-Air Force Half Marathon. He also learned to ski independently, and in 2014, competed in the inaugural Invictus Games in London.

“For all I’ve done in sports and in the military, the wheelchair quickly gets ignored,” he says. “The more you perform, the more you get to perform; the wheelchair isn’t even a factor.”

Having transitioned back to Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington where he hopes to retire, the Army Colonel now serves as the collective training chief of the Army’s I Corps. He knows one day soon he’ll be the one transitioning out of the military into Veteran status, and it’s then that he’s set his sights on some big, personal goals.

“Ninety percent of the disabled community is not physically active, and I don’t believe it’s because of money or venues, it’s participation,” he says. “I want to create something incredible in the Northwest to help grow participation and competition in adaptive sports. The passion I have for adaptive sports has driven me to this, but of course, I have to retire first.”

The 36th NVWG will be a step on the path of the post-retirement goals Dudek has set for himself. It’s also a step to reclaim his personal physical activity lost over the past couple of years due to busy work schedules and other personal demands. At the NVWG, he’ll compete in swimming, track, cycling and triathlon.

“I want to get physically active again,” he says. “But for me, the Games are more about the community than the competition. I’m excited about the possibilities and the people I get to meet.”

Still, amidst much success in both career and sport, Dudek says it all comes back to the true love of his life: his wife, Megan, who was there before his injury and has been his constant every day after.

“All good things are because of my wife,” he says. “I’m able to do so much only because of her support.”

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.

Paraplegic Mountaineer Mark Wellman to Feature Climbing Wall Demo at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Paralympian Mark Wellman

Paralympian Mark Wellman

World-renowned adaptive athlete and Paralympian Mark Wellman’s mission is to help others with disabilities discover their own unique ability to conquer mountains – literally.

Wellman, who became a mountaineer at age 12, determined for himself that there would be no mountain he could not conquer. Little did he know that roughly one decade later, at age 22, paralysis would become the greatest “mountain” of his life: a freak accident in the descent of the Seven Gables in the John Muir wilderness in 1982 left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“For me, laying in the hospital paralyzed was a fate worse than death,” Wellman says. “If I could have gotten out of bed and gotten to the window, I would have jumped out. I had wished the mountain would have taken my life instead of making me a paraplegic.”

Yet it was in his eight months of rehabilitation at the hospital that Wellman began to heal. He met a quadriplegic patient who inspired him to adapt to his disability – and ultimately reclaim the active lifestyle he’d always known.

“It wasn’t an easy transition; it took me a good year to really adjust,” Wellman says. “What really brought me back was adaptive sports.”

The journey into adaptive sports Wellman made in the mid-1980s is one he’s coached, mentored and encouraged disabled Veterans to join him on for more than 25 years. And it’s one he’ll continue at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games – taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City – with a climbing wall exhibit and speech for novice athletes.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it; a disability is not an easy thing to overcome,” Wellman says. “But the mind is a powerful thing, and it all starts with a positive attitude. Life isn’t over; there’s so much that people with disabilities can do.”

Wellman personifies that sentiment. In 1989, along with climbing partner Mike Corbett, he defeated all odds by climbing the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. Two years later, the pair endured the 13-day trek to conquer Yosemite’s 2,200-foot vertical Tis-Sa-Ack route on Half Dome.

A two-time Paralympian, Wellman has competed with the United States Disabled Ski Team, and in 1993, became the first paraplegic to sit-ski across the Sierra Nevada mountain range with only the use of his arms. He also lit the cauldron for the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, Ga., and has visited with President George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office.

Still, just as important as climbing his own personal and physical mountains is Wellman’s desire to help others with disabilities overcome theirs. His 24-foot climbing wall – adapted for disabled athletes using an anchor system – will be available to NVWG athletes to try throughout the week of the Games.

Climbing equipment will be adapted depending on an athlete’s level of injury, Wellman says. For example, more severely disabled veterans will use pulley systems using a modified ascender with a pull-up bar. Paraplegics and amputees who are more physically fit will have the opportunity to go hand-over-hand – or free-climb – up the wall using a climbing harness and a rope, he said.

“It’s not a carnival ride,” Wellman says. “It’s a learning process, designed to help Veterans learn what climbing is all about.”

Novice athletes also will have the opportunity to sit down with Wellman at the Novice Meeting on Mon., June 27, at 2:30 p.m., in Hall 1. Wellman will talk about “Overcoming Barriers,” and answer questions about outdoor fitness and adaptive sports.

“A lot of people with disabilities think life is over, but they’re not seeing all of the possibilities,” Wellman says. “What’s so great about the Games and what the VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America do in hosting sporting events around the country is that it shows how to get back to life and back to enjoying physical fitness.”

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

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

Disappointments May Mean Success for Navy Veteran Sharona Young at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Navy Veteran Sharona Young and her daughter Taylor.

Navy Veteran Sharona Young and her daughter Taylor.

For Navy Veteran Sharona Young, “the best successes often come after the greatest disappointments.”

Young always believed that sentiment but never realized how true it would eventually become for her own life. In 2012, while assigned to the U.S. Africa Command in Molesworth, England, she noticed an escalation of symptoms she’d had for years, namely severe pain in her left foot and leg as well as extreme fatigue and weakness. After exhausting every possible route for diagnosis, doctors discovered through imaging tests lesions on her brain, spinal cord and optic nerve consistent with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

At the time, all Young could think about was her then-six-year-old daughter, Taylor, at home with her family in Minneapolis while Young completed her tour overseas.

“I came home and was completely different,” Young says. “My daughter didn’t understand why her mom was in a wheelchair, and the greatest challenge was explaining to her that I could no longer just get up and do the things we used to do.”

Still, Young’s greatest challenge also became her greatest motivator. She medically retired as a Chief Petty Officer in 2014, and, armed with passion to maintain some sense of normalcy as a single mom to Taylor, she started searching for activities she could do from her wheelchair. While never particularly interested in athletics, Young wondered if sports might be the most natural fit.

“I played badminton in high school, but I’ve never been very athletic,” she says. “I don’t even like watching sports, so my sister and friends found it odd when I started taking an interest in them.”

Young moved to Orlando, Fla., and – hoping to bond with her daughter and cope with the daily stresses of her complex, unpredictable disease – started pursuing adaptive sports, namely cycling. She was instantly hooked and became determined to try anything she could. Participation in the VA’s Summer and Winter Sports Clinics opened even more doors – to archery, kayaking, skiing and snowmobiling, to name a few.

A trip to the 2014 Warrior Games followed, paving the way for Young’s participation in her first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City. She’ll compete in cycling, nine-ball, boccia, table tennis, bowling and bobsledding at the 36th annual NVWG.

“I’m really looking forward to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games because I’m always looking for new things to keep me active, that I can play with my daughter,” she says. “We ride our bikes together often, but I would love finding an actual sport we could play together.”

Sports aside, what Young says she loves most about events like the NVWG is the opportunity to connect with Veterans to learn how they cope with everyday stresses associated with disability – from self-care to parenting to socializing with friends.

“There’s just something about being around other Veterans, regardless of whether they’re injured or sick,” she says. “The fact that they are a Veteran means they can relate to you on a level that someone who hasn’t been in the military can’t. That camaraderie and unspoken bond cannot be found anywhere else.”

It’s that bond that draws Young to a variety of volunteer work, including with Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Central Florida Chapter as well as a Community Living Center run by the VA. She also is active in the PTA at her daughter’s school and volunteers at her local food bank from time to time.

Young credits much of her activity in sports and community to her sister, Nakesha, who moved to Orlando to be her caregiver. “I’m so grateful to have my sister here with me,” she says.

With much success past, present and future, Young sees clearly now that so much of that success can be traced back to the initial disappointment of an MS diagnosis. That is what carries her through the rough days – and ultimately will carry her through the competition at the NVWG.

“No one wants to find out they have an incurable disease,” she says. “Even though it was something I didn’t want to hear or accept, it’s opened up so many doors; I’m learning so many new things and meeting so many great new people. In so many ways, success started with that initial disappointment.”

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.

Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano to Compete in First National Veterans Wheelchair Games

US Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano with Prince Harry from Great Britain.

US Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano with Prince Harry from Great Britain.

For paralyzed Army Sergeant First Class Sualauvi “Sua” Tuimalealiifano, it was the faces of his three children that pulled him out of his darkest moments of loss and depression – just enough to discover that dreams, goals and ultimately hope might be regained on the surface of a rugby court.

“Depression and anxiety are a whole different kind of evil, and if I’d had the hand function for it, I probably would have taken myself out,” Sua says. “But what pulled me out was the fact that my kids were still young; I didn’t know what their future would be like without me around.”

Born in America Samoa, Sua at age six moved with his family to Kalihi, Hawaii. In June 1997, three weeks after graduating from high school, the rugged, natural-born leader enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he flourished as a paratrooper, jumpmaster and special operations soldier, serving multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in 2007, Sua was serving with the then-newly formed 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) in Southern Afghanistan when enemy fire struck. Sua, wearing roughly 100 pounds of military gear, jumped to the M240B swivel machine gun at the back of the truck, but as the driver took an abrupt turn, Sua was thrown to his back on the ground.

“I heard the snap like a hollow break of dry wood within, inside my ears,” Sua says. “But I was still fighting the war. So many of our supply channels and driving routes had been compromised. We were already short-manned, and often the only reason to send a chopper was for body bags or very severe injuries. I wasn’t about to chance it not knowing what it was. I didn’t see it as a problem, so I kept going.”

For months, Sua endured pain in the back of his neck so severe it “felt like one large needle piercing through it.” Still, he found it in himself to push through the deployment, until one morning in Aug. 2007, when he fell out of bed, his neck hitting the small table at his bedside.

“What happened was my upper half went to get out of bed, and the lower half wouldn’t go with me,” he says. “After my buddies helped me back into bed and I laid there for a few hours, I realized I couldn’t move anything from my waist down.”

Sua was medevaced to Bagram Air Base in Northern Afghanistan, and later to Germany to undergo surgery. After completing months-long rehabilitation at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, he returned home to Ft. Bragg, N.C. In need of more help and assistance from family, he, his wife, Shannon, and their three children moved to Hawaii, to a home that was not modified to meet his needs.

Sua refused to give up. He remained in the Army, first working at Special Operations Command Pacific and later as a counselor helping injured Veterans. But depression set in, and only compounded severely when a 2009 newspaper article left out critical facts about Sua’s combat service and injury.

“It wasn’t the story I told, and I didn’t want to show my face or be anywhere,” he says. “As much as I wanted to stay on active duty, I had all of these people calling me trying to help me out, and I had to set them straight with the story. I felt like I had betrayed my unit, as if I was perceived as having told a different storyline. It only pushed me further into depression.”

For the next six years, Sua determined to stay out of the public eye – and ultimately out of public altogether. With a cervical spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic, he believed any chance to get out of the house was too heavy a burden on those he would require for help.

That was until the U.S. Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) Care Coalition stepped in, encouraging Sua to fly to Tampa to participate in its adaptive sports program. It was there that he tried quad rugby for the first time, and suddenly, a new way of life began to open before him.

“Sports have been a complete game-changer for me in terms of living life with this injury,” Sua says. “Sports have given me a sense of purpose, the means to stay fit and goals to keep getting better. Even more, sports have opened up the opportunity for me to be around other veterans with similar injuries. It’s there that we share experiences and passions and discover what else can be done.”

Sua and his family have since moved to Tampa, where he is now a valued member of the Tampa Generals quad rugby team. The retired Sergeant First Class also has competed in rugby, wheelchair racing, shot put and discus at the Warrior Games, Invictus Games and Dixie Games.

On June 27, 2016, Sua will roll into his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) with the same relentless passion and competitive spirit as he competes in quad rugby, discus, club, weightlifting and slalom. Beyond that, he’s eager to learn and encourage alongside his fellow disabled veterans – whether injured in combat or not.

“I was injured in combat, but veterans shouldn’t feel like they had to be in order to play adaptive sports; we don’t owe one person more than another,” he says. “An injury comes with side blinders, which will bring you back into depression if you let it. It requires constant repetition, reminding yourself that there’s hope.”

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.