Boccia Opens to Paraplegics at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Boccia at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.

Boccia at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.

For centuries, the Italian game of boccia has been touted as the sport for everyone.

And June 27-July 2, 2016, the precision ball sport will return for its third year as a competitive event at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City. While traditionally offered at the Games to quadriplegics only, boccia as “everyone’s game” will be evident at the 2016 Games as paraplegics in the II, III, IV and V classes will compete in the Game’s boccia event for the first time.

“Expanding the boccia event to include paraplegics is a terrific idea because my philosophy and part of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s mission is about inclusion,” said Al Kovach, national president of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “Anytime we can include more people, it’s a win-win for everyone, as the more people you have involved in a sport, the better it becomes.”

Few believe that sentiment as it applies to boccia more than Paralyzed Veterans of America National Vice President Charles Brown. A Marine Corps Veteran paralyzed in a diving accident in 1986, Brown was introduced to boccia by a Canadian friend in 2011 and has since risen to the #47 world ranking in the sport.

Brown holds his own personal goals for boccia, including making the U.S. Paralympic boccia team for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But externally, his ultimate goal is to introduce boccia to as many disabled veterans as possible in hopes of boosting U.S. competition on an international level. Expanding the competition to paraplegics at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games is an important first step, he said.

“We have on average about 40 athletes who compete at Nationals to make it on the U.S. team, but if we get more athletes involved, including paraplegics, that could easily jump to 100 or 150,” he says. “I would love to see more paraplegics take an interest in the game and play it on the regional level so they can in turn push for it to become part of the U.S. Boccia Nationals.”

Boccia is a precision ball sport similar to the Italian game of bocce. Boccia – practiced in more than 50 countries most frequently by individuals with neurological conditions involving a wheelchair – consists of four rounds of individual and paired competition and six rounds of team competition.

While once considered a leisure activity, boccia was introduced as a competitive sport at the 1984 Paralympic Games in New York.

Paraplegics and quadriplegics will compete in separate events at the 36th NVWG, with paraplegics opening the competition on Thurs., June 30, at 6:30 p.m. at Hall AB in the convention center. Competition for quadriplegics will follow on Saturday, July 2, at 7:30 a.m., also at Hall AB in the convention center.

“It will be interesting to see how some choose to throw the ball,” Brown says. “Boccia requires very detailed throws and strategy, and paraplegics in the past have shown they are susceptible to many of the same challenges in the game as quadriplegics.”

Competition aside, Marine Corps Veteran Judi Ruiz is thrilled to see the expansion of a sport she has helped coach over the past year to Veterans of all ages and levels of disability at the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Medical Center in Chicago. The Salt Lake City Games will mark Ruiz’s third year of competition in the sport.

“I’ve seen Veterans who believed they could not through the ball, and suddenly the ball is in the middle of the court,” she says. “Boccia is amazing because of the rehabilitative benefits, as participants use their arms, hand-eye coordination, strategy and cognitive ability. They come in quiet and reserved, and before long, they can’t wait to team up and compete. It’s obvious why boccia has grown so much in popularity. Everyone loves 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.

Boccia Sees Dramatic Growth at 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Boccia at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas, Texas, June 22nd. Photo by Chris Ennis,

Boccia at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas, Texas, June 22nd. Photo by Chris Ennis.

Paralyzed Army veteran Scott Richards never heard of the adaptive sport of Boccia until last year.

But the boccia event at the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) was evidence that he – as well as nearly 100 other Veterans – had latched on to the precision ball sport. Offered as an exhibition at the 33rd Games in Tampa, Boccia is now in its second year of competition at the Games.

“I got involved a year ago when someone donated some boccia balls, and we started playing,” said Richards, who began playing with Paralyzed Veterans of America National Vice President Charles Brown.

Boccia is a precision ball sport similar to the Italian game of bocce. Boccia – practiced in more than 50 countries most frequently by individuals with neurological conditions involving a wheelchair – consists of four rounds of individual and paired competition and six rounds of team competition.

While once considered a leisure activity, Boccia was introduced as a competitive sport at the 1984 Paralympic Games in New York.

Richards says he cannot believe the growth of a sport he only came to know barely a year ago. This year’s Games’ Boccia event drew nearly 100 wheelchair athletes, significantly more than last year’s Games, said Erin Greene, adaptive sports consultant for Paralyzed Veterans of America.

“I credit the growth to the Boccia clinics we’ve run that have brought in more people to get involved,” Green said. “Everyone enjoys it because it’s not a physical sport; it’s a strategy. Once you get hooked into the strategy, you love it.”

The VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America thus far have run three Boccia clinics in Seattle, Sious Falls, S.D., and at the Buckeye Wheelchair Games in Geneva, Ohio.

Richards, who took first place over 18 novices at the Games’ boccia event on June 22, 2015, competed with his team earlier this year in Montreal. The Games’ marked only his second competitive Boccia event, but he’s looking forward to competing more with the team – the Cluster Busters.

“This has taken off for us,” said recreational therapist Charley Wright of the Jefferson Barracks VA Medical Center in St. Louis. “The Cluster Busters now have the team name and the uniforms.”

As the 35th Games came to a close, Wright says he hopes the sport will continue to grow. This year, the USA Paralympic Boccia team will come to St. Louis to put on a clinic and scout for players at certain levels, he said.

“I’m excited the U.S. is starting to embrace Boccia because the U.S. is not the strongest team,” Wright said. “South America and Canada are way ahead of us.”

Green expresses the same enthusiasm as she considers the dramatic growth of the sport – particularly for those living with higher-level injuries who are typically more limited in the events they can compete in.

“We’re hoping to make Boccia a circuit event, especially because the sport gives quadriplegics another sport to participate in,” Green said.

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

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