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.

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.