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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

Torch Passed to 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City

Passing the torch from Dallas to Salt Lake City for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games June 25, 2015.

National Veterans Wheelchair Games 2015 closing ceremonies in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Rick Yeatts.

As the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games came to a close Friday June 26, 2015, thoughts quickly moved to the planning of the 2016 Games in Salt Lake City.

Nearly 600 athletes watched as the 35th Games came to a close Friday evening, June 26, and wondered what’s to come in the Beehive state when the 36th Games arrive in June of 2016.

“I think that Salt Lake City will offer a hometown, family feel to the Games,” said Tom Brown, founder of the NVWG and Games director for Paralyzed Veterans of America.

While the official theme and logo are still being determined, the obvious underlying theme will be the beauty and the natural wonders of Utah, said Jill Atwood, Chief Communications Officer for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System.

“Veterans and their families are going to think it’s extraordinarily beautiful,” she said.

The 36th NVWG will offer 19 wheelchair sports spread out through the entire Salt Lake Community. “We are excited to be bringing the Games to Salt Lake City. People will see true competition and realize that a disability doesn’t mean inability.” says Dave Tostenrude, Director, NVWG for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Salt Lake City’s experience in hosting the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Games will mean streamlined transportation and access to hotels and venues, Brown said. Lodging will be in close proximity to Games’ venues, and the transportation provided had a role in Paralympic transportation in 2002, he said. The annual Block Party will take place in Olympic Village, he added.

“There’s a lot of history in Salt Lake City as far as the Olympics are concerned,” Brown said. “Many in the community remember the Paralympics and what a great time they had.”

There is nothing better than watching these men and women reach goals and achieve greatness beyond what they thought they could. We are so thrilled to be a part of the magic. See you in 2016! Atwood said.

The NVWG are co-presented by Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

 

Kids Day Inspires Next Generation

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2-year old Clara enjoying Kids Day in Dallas

Nearly two dozen children with disabilities gathered Tuesday to be mentored by veterans who are experienced wheelchair athletes and whose lives are a testament to what can be achieved in spite of a disability.

Kids Day—held as part of the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Dallas—is now in its 15th year. After being led in cadences and warm-up exercises, the kids were cheered on through three events: slalom—a challenging obstacle course for wheelchair athletes—T-ball and basketball.

Dr. Ken Lee, medical director for the NVWG, returned to his iconic role as emcee for the event. Kids Day is one of the most exciting times for the athletes,” he said. “It’s not just about competition at that point; it’s about bringing the future into the competition.”

This year’s Kids Day also welcomed its youngest participant in the history of the event—and the first ever to compete in a standing wheelchair: a 2-year-old named Carla, who confidently wheeled herself around the slalom course and T-ball field.

“This gives her an opportunity to see other kids who are in a similar situation to what she’s in,” said Carla’s dad, Joey. “Most of the kids she’s around are not in wheelchairs, so it’s great for her to be exposed to this.”

Enrique Lopez, whose father, Enrique Sr., is a paralyzed veteran competing this year, smiled as the audience cheered him through various events. ““The more we can improve his life, the more functional he becomes.”

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.

“I always try to tell our mentors that they’re continuing their service by providing inspiration and giving back to the community,” said Sheila Skipper, associate director of public relations and outreach for Paralyzed Veterans of America, who works with VA to coordinate Kids Day annually. “I always try to involve older mentors who have participated in the program and also introduce it to some younger ones so they can go back and share this with their communities back home.”

Twila Adams, a paralyzed Army veteran who served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations in Kuwait and Iraq, never stopped serving after she left her 11-year Army career in 1991. She began providing mobile manicures, pedicures and Reiki to the sick, seniors and individuals with disabilities confined to their homes. A car accident in 1994 caused quadriplegia, but her desire to help others did not wane, and said she feels now that wants to inspire children who live with many of the same challenges she has faced for more than 20 years.

“It was an honor to serve as a Kids Day mentor,” she said. “This was a first for me, and I’m excited about serving again. I am still on cloud nine from meeting all of the awesome children and their families.”

For Lee, Kids Day is also about educating and inspiring the audience and local community that a disability does not mean a child, veteran or any adult lacks the ability to live a quality life.

“When we look at these kids, we may feel sorry for them for being in that situation at first, but when we see them going through the challenges and obstacles of sports, that all vanishes,” he said. “It enables a lot of people to look past the disability and see all of the things these kids are able to do.”

 

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Wichita Falls, Texas.