First-Ever Triathlon Exhibition Comes to 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Swimming event at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.Sixteen Veteran wheelchair athletes will test their strength and endurance in swimming, cycling and road racing at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games’ first-ever Triathlon exhibition.

The three-stage race – featured at the 2016 Games taking place June 27-July 2, in Salt Lake City – will guide participants through a 200M swim, 10K cycling and 2.5K road race. The first-time exhibition event will take place Thurs., June 30, at Liberty Park in downtown Salt Lake City.

“I brought up the idea at the 33rd Games in Tampa of doing triathlon as an exhibition, and leadership helped make that idea a reality quickly,” said Andy MacDonald, associate sports director for Paralyzed Veterans of America and a nine-time Ironman triathlon finisher. MacDonald – who helped stand up and coach the triathlon team at Georgetown University – will serve as head official for the exhibition.

Paratriathlon’s emergence as an adaptive sport is evidenced by its debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Paralympic athletes will compete in a sprint distance race involving a 750M swim, 20K cycling and 5K road race.

While a new Paralympic sport, the triathlon exhibition at the NVWG will not be limited to elite athletes. The exhibition was designed to help Veterans in every community across the United States seize the opportunity for regular daily exercise as well as participation in cycling races and other community events.

“The hope is that the event educates and motivates our Veterans beyond the week in Salt Lake City,” MacDonald said.

A first-year exhibition sport at the Games, triathlon will be a non-medal event. Racers will compete in either the Quad Open or Para Open, and male and female categories. The race will reflect USA Paratriathlon guidelines for Super Sprint distance.

Athletes will begin the competition with a 200-meter pool swim (two-four laps), after which they will transfer to their wheelchair to transition to the handcycle race. Once there, athletes will transfer to their handcycles and take off for the 10K bike course. After an athlete has crossed the bike dismount line, he or she will transfer back into their wheelchair to travel to their race chair/gear to compete the final 2.5-mile run course.

Athletes are finished once the finish line is crossed in their race chair.

As exhibition events must take place twice at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games before they can be designated as medal events, coordinators will review the 2016 triathlon exhibition and make necessary improvements in advance of a second exhibition at the 37th Games in Cincinnati in 2017, MacDonald said.

It’s unclear how athletes will perform in the exhibition, MacDonald added, as most have competed in swimming, racing or handcycling but not necessarily all three or in a triathlon format. Army Veteran Holly Koester – the first person in a wheelchair to compete in marathons in all 50 states – is sure to stand out in the racing and handcycling portions, he said.

“This is Holly’s first triathlon ever,” he said. “Once she gets on the handcycle and push rim, she’s going to be like Moses separating the Red Sea. She’s a rocket.”

For information and rules on the Triathlon exhibition at the 36th NVWG, click here.

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.