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.

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.

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Give Athlete Judi Ruiz Platform for Positive Change in Chicago

Marine Corps Veteran and Chicago native Judi Ruiz

Marine Corps Veteran and Chicago native Judi Ruiz

It was 2003 when Marine Corps Veteran Judi Ruiz believed multiple sclerosis (MS) had claimed everything she had.

A native of Chicago, Ruiz served as a criminal investigator with the Army for six years, transitioning in 1980 to a position as a federal detective with the Defense Department and Air Force Reserves. In 1989, she shifted careers to become a regional sales manager for the state of California.

But in 2002, Ruiz began to experience symptoms that doctors believed were consistent with a stroke. Imaging tests, however, revealed that Ruiz’s symptoms — weakness, cognitive problems and loss of balance – were connected to multiple sclerosis (MS).

“I lost my ability to work; our family had to sell everything and move back to Chicago,” she says. “I’d gone from making six figures to being on disability and losing my health insurance. I felt like I’d lost everything, including myself.”

But it was the Edward Hines, Jr. VA Medical Center in Chicago that Ruiz credits for saving her life. She transferred her care to Hines, where she received her first wheelchair and was asked for the first time if she had any interest in trying adaptive sports.

“I didn’t know anything about sports,” Ruiz says. “I don’t like competition; I don’t like anything about it. So I said ‘no.’”

Yet Ruiz’s “no” fell flat the moment she realized adaptive sports could be an alternative to clinic therapy. “I went to an air rifle event at Hines the following week, and it was like I learned to fly,” she says. “It completely changed my life.”

The burst of confidence found in air rifles inspired Ruiz just months later to travel to Anchorage, Alaska for her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Now 10 years later, Ruiz has not missed a single NVWG since. She’s competed in events including archery, air rifles, bowling, discus, javelin, 200M racing, slalom and boccia, and has medaled in every event.

Still, for Ruiz, the Games have little to do with accolades. Instead, her goal each year is solely to remain healthy enough to attend. “When I get on that plane and touch down at the next Wheelchair Games location, I’ve already accomplished my goal,” she says. “Any awards beyond that are just a bonus.”

The Games also represent a time for cross-mentorship that Ruiz says is unmatched by any other event or experience. A fellow Veteran can be firing off tips as he fires his air rifle and vice versa, she says. As a recent surgery on her left hand will require competing in most events one-handed at the 36th Games, Ruiz says it’s that cross-mentorship that will make a difference. “I’m not worried because I know I’m likely to meet someone who has some good one-handed tips,” she says.

It’s those tips, as well as the mentorship, camaraderie and inspiration of the Games that Ruiz carries back home to Chicago each year as she volunteers as a mentor, peer counselor and coach at the Hines VAMC and in her local community. “I don’t just limit myself to Veteran events,” she says. “The goal of the Games and Veterans programs is to learn something and push yourself out in the community to help educate them on what you need and what you can do.”

Ruiz’s role in the community was especially evident in 2012, when she spoke up about the lack of accessibility at an archery range at one of Chicago’s parks. In turn, the city’s parks district used her recommendations to revamp the park’s accessibility, and in 2013, Ruiz was invited to cut the ribbon and raise the American flag at the park’s opening ceremony.

“When you get out into the community, you have no idea what’s waiting for you until you tell them what you need,” she says. “And the Hines VA has given me that voice.”

For Ruiz, her 11th consecutive NVWG offers another platform for her to use that voice to encourage her fellow Veterans and speak up for change. Cheering her on will be her partner and caregiver, Gladys, who endured with her through the early days of an MS diagnosis and has traveled with her to every NVWG event.

And with hindsight always being 20/20, Ruiz no longer believes MS took everything she had. Instead, she gained everything: not only the best health of her life but a positive purpose for herself. And if any other Veteran believes an injury means their life is over, Ruiz assures them that it’s only just beginning.

“The biggest accomplishment for me is being healthy enough to have to learned to focus on my abilities and not my disabilities,” she says. “I can do anything I want to do and pay that forward to someone else who is now in the place I was – while maybe not with the same symptoms or diagnosis – to come full circle and discover that in every negative there’s a positive. For me, I owe everything I am to the Hines VA Hospital.”

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.

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.

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.

 

Paralympic Powerlifting Replaces Bench Press at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

disabledpowerliftingdotcom

Image courtesy of disabledpowerlifting.com

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) are once again evolving in an effort to open up more opportunities and boost competition for Veterans involved in adaptive lifting.

The 36th NVWG – taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City – will for the first time replace the traditional weightlifting event with powerlifting, consistent with the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPC) rules and standards for the sport.

“Periodically event standards change at the National and Paralympic competitions,” said Tom Brown, founder of the NVWG and consultant for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “As a rule, the NVWG changes to meet these standards in order to prepare our Veterans to continue the sport after the Games. We are excited to make the change from bench press to powerlift to enable our Veterans to continue on in the community, national, or Olympic level if they wish.”

Powerlifting differs from weightlifting in the level of lift. Whereas weightlifting’s standards require the safety stand holding the bar in a position one inch from the chest, requiring a lifter to press the bar up and back down on command, powerlifting requires the opposite: lifters start in the top position, take the bar from the rack with arms straight, lower the bar slowly to the chest on command, pause and lift back up before the command to rack the bar. Each powerlifter is allowed three attempts.

“This type of bench press is the current IPC-approved lift for the powerlifting event,” said Charles French, administration manager for the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. “This will help us mainstream the lift at the NVWG competition in hope that it will become a sanctioned event and help us identify potential Paralympic-level lifters.”

Most rules for powerlifting will remain the same as those for weightlifting, with the only exceptions being special accommodations for lifting positions and assistive devices used for athletes’ safety. A small amount of lenience will be permitted early on as the NVWG makes the transition, French said.

As the NVWG continues to strive as a pipeline of potential elite athletes, the move to Paralympic powerlifting was the natural course to ensure athletes who are interested in competing learn the rules and strategy and return to their communities committed to training in the sport. The hope is that many local programs will make the transition to powerlifting as well, French said.

“Powerlifting is a great example of where the VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America continues to drive the program,” said Dave Tostenrude, director of the NVWG. “We are committed to finding new challenges for the competitors while bridging the opportunities to the community involvement.”

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Learn more about Paralympic powerlifting (PDF format)

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.

Athlete Village to Boost Engagement at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Kansas veterans at the 2015 NVWG v2Athletes at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City will notice a new feature: the Athlete Village, a central gathering place for Veterans to gather and support one another.

The Athlete Village – in the area adjacent to the exhibit halls of the National Disabled Sports, Recreation and Fitness Expo – will serve as a central gathering place for Veterans to attend medal and awards ceremonies, purchase memorabilia and learn throughout the week about adaptive sports and other opportunities beyond the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

“This is my 23rd year with the Games, and I’ve learned over the years that the Games are not only about the competition,” said Dave Tostenrude, director of the NVWG. “The Games are just one piece of our efforts to support the health and activity of our Veterans, and our goal is that this gathering place will be popular not only for educating them but encouraging them to come together and support one another.”

Medal and awards ceremonies, while traditionally held at specific events, this year will move to the Athlete Village in hopes of generating more spectators. Medals for team events will continue to take place at their respective locations.

“In the past, awards ceremonies often would have few athletes and spectators who came to watch,” said Tom Brown, founder of the NVWG and now consultant for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “The idea is to place these ceremonies in the middle of the Athlete Village in order to boost engagement.”

The Athlete Village also will house the Internet Café, sponsored by HP Enterprises, where Veterans can use one of six computers to access the Internet at any time. A sponsors’ wall also will be featured, as will daily entertainment just outside of the Village location.

“We want our Veterans to be active and engaged,” Brown said. “The Athlete Village is one way we’ll encourage them to do that.”

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.

National Veterans Wheelchair Games Help Army Veteran Michael Hale Reclaim Active Life

Army Veteran Mike Hale

Army Veteran Mike Hale

Army Veteran Michael Hale never imagined that a wheelchair sports event could dramatically change his life.

But in 2015, Hale traveled to Dallas to attend his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), at first hesitant to believe that wheelchair sports could play an important part in his rehabilitation. In 2014, Hale – who enlisted in the Army in 1975 and served eight years – suffered an aneurysm in his lower aorta. He remained on life support for days, and due to the lack of blood supply to his right leg, doctors had no choice but to amputate it.

“I never expected to experience what I did at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games my first year, but it was amazing,” says Hale, who lives in Yelm, Wash., with his wife of 12 years, Garnelle. “This year, our dining room table is full of our luggage. For me, I only had to go once to know I’ll never stop going.”

For Hale, acquiring a disability later in life hasn’t come easy. Each morning, the challenges begin with intense pain and the realization that another day must pass, lived much differently than the life he’d known prior to his 2014 surgery.

“I wake up most mornings, look over at my prosthetic leg and say to myself, ‘No, not again,’” Hale says. “I still go through depression; it just happens.”

But what Hale initially saw as physical therapy early on in his disability became the mental therapy that continues to lift him through the challenges of each day. A swimmer in high school, Hale began swimming in 2014 as part of his rehabilitation, and suddenly, a new world unbeknownst to him throughout his military career and 36 years running an RV business began to open up.

“Becoming involved in sports was a game-changer,” Hale says. “It’s been more than two years, and now I travel almost 200 miles per week for practice.”

Hale rose to the winner’s podium his novice year in Dallas in 2015, earning silver medals in the 100M track and bowling events. At the 2016 Games in Salt Lake City, he’ll compete in softball, 9-ball, bowling, 100M track and table tennis.

“It’s all about the gold this year,” he says.

Still, while medals and competition are important, Hale has not forgotten the camaraderie and encouragement that can be provided at no better venue than the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. He credits his first NVWG for equipping him with the confidence to coach his fellow amputees and others with disabilities in sports, particularly bowling.

“No one asks for a disability, but once you’re dealt it, you must learn to deal with it,” he says. “A lot of it is in your mind, what you can and can’t do, but there’s something out there for everyone.”

For Hale, the Games are about learning from and sharing with his fellow Veterans, not only about skills and techniques in adaptive sports but about coping with the daily challenges of living with a disability. While fired up about the competition, he’ll move past his own personal events to cheer on his friends and Northwest team members.

“I just got my new prosthetic leg, a new sports chair and a haircut, and I feel like a new man,” Hale says with a laugh. “The VA has invested so much more in me as an athlete this year. The Games have changed my life, and I’m even more excited this year than I was last.”

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.