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.