More than 50 novice and experienced wheelchair athletes gathered at the opening of the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas for one of four sports clinics.
Each year, the collection of sports clinics keep with the spirit of the Games in empowering veterans with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, amputations and other neurological injuries to live more active and healthy lives through wheelchair sports and recreation. This year’s sports clinics enabled wheelchair athletes to try one of four new sports – table tennis, quad rugby, power soccer and basketball.
For Bryan Anderson, an Army veteran and triple amputee, coming to his first Games as an exhibitor gave him the perfect chance to try quad rugby – a sport that has long garnered his attention since he was injured 10 years ago. The clinic – which featured 11 novice and seasoned athletes – had him hooked, he said.
“There’s so much strategy involved; I thought everyone just got out there and smashed each other,” Anderson said. “I’ve been so busy that I haven’t hadn’t time to commit to a team, so doing something like this that’s impromptu is great. I think it’s something I’ll pursue more.”
Veterans also were given an opportunity to try table tennis and learn from an expert about technique and equipment. Ken Johnson, an Air Force veteran and amputee, tried tabled tennis at the 33rd Games in Tampa, and this year has come back to compete in the official Games table tennis events.
“This is the first year I’ve been in the open competition for table tennis,” Johnson said. “I have a machine at home that helps me practice, so I’m looking forward to see if and how that’s going to help me in the competition this year.”
More than 20 veterans also participated in this year’s clinic for power soccer, which is the first competitive team sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users. Power soccer, which is played in a gymnasium on a regulation basketball court, features teams of four players who attack, defend and spin-kick a 13-inch soccer ball in a challenging game similar to traditional able-bodied soccer.
“Because the game is two-dimensional, we try to create some artificial space on the field,” said Chris Mulholland of the US Power Soccer Association. “We try to make the rules as much like the outdoor game as possible with a couple exceptions – and those exceptions are the two big things we tried to get clinic participants to understand.”
Finally, roughly 10 wheelchair athletes gathered to learn tips and techniques from experts in wheelchair basketball – one of the oldest and most popular wheelchair sports. Leroy Barnett, a paralyzed Army veteran, said he had been playing basketball his entire life up until his injury and was thrilled to learn new information for continuing his beloved pastime.
“I’ve been playing basketball since I was a kid, and once you know the fundamentals, it doesn’t matter if you’re standing or in a chair, you just get your arms moving,” Barnett said. “This is going to be something I’m going to pursue as long as I can. As long as I can move my body, I’m going to do it.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Wichita Falls, Texas.