Games Elevated: How to Beat the Heat, Altitude in Salt Lake City

36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake CityThe 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City will be “Games Elevated,” a play on the city’s high altitude, mountainous terrain and summer temperatures reaching into the high 90s and low 100s. But “elevated” also means athletes with spinal cord injuries and other injuries and conditions will need to take some precautions in order to sustain good physical health and performance.

With temperatures projected up to 101 degrees the week of the Games, the dry heat of Salt Lake City means athletes must remember to drink plenty of water to avoid becoming dehydrated.

“Athletes are not going to feel hot in many cases because their sweat evaporates so fast,” said Dr. Kenneth Lee, medical director for the NVWG. “With that evaporation, they dehydrate faster, which means they need to drink more even though they may not feel that they’re sweating it off.”

Athletes traveling to the Games should also remember to bring a light jacket or sweater, as body temperature issues could also arise as athletes travel from the dry heat to indoor air-conditioned areas, Lee added. “In the evenings, it will cool down fast, so athletes should remember to have a jacket or long-sleeve along,” he said.

Salt Lake City boasts an altitude of more than 4,300 feet, and while this is not a level that should be of concern for most athletes, those with high-level injuries or who are prone to altitude sickness should take necessary precautions. One precaution that should be addressed with a doctor prior to the Games is the medication Acetazolamide, which athletes should begin taking two or three days prior to travel to Salt Lake City to aid with altitude sickness, Lee said.

Finally, traveling is always a challenge for many people with disabilities, Lee said, particularly as many athletes have neurogenic and bowel conditions. Many athletes, for example, choose not to eat in order to avoid a potential accident, but athletes should maintain a solid, steady diet throughout their travel.

“Athletes need to be aware that their schedule is changing, their metabolism is going to change, the type of food and amount they will consume will change, and bowel and bladder routine may change as well,” Lee said. “They should figure out from past travel what the best thing is for them to eat to sustain a healthy environment for their bodies.”

Athletes should also fall back on the rehabilitation training they have all had as they adapt to a new environment. An important part of that training is asking for help when needed, Lee said.

“In many cases, athletes are too proud, so they tend not to ask for help,” he said. “But asking for help is part of the rehab process and is part of directing their own care and directing their lives. Travel and living temporarily in other places are challenging, but athletes should talk about the challenges as they come up. It should turn it into an exciting, adventurous challenge.”
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.

Sport is Secondary for First-Time National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athlete Danny Dudek

Army Colonel Danny Dudek

Army Colonel Danny Dudek (center) on the podium after accepting his gold medal at the Warrior Games.

For active Army Colonel Danny Dudek, sports are secondary to service.

That’s the mentality he will bring to the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City, where he will compete in his first-ever NVWG with not so much something to prove, but rather, something to learn.

“Sports are secondary to me,” Dudek says. “The National Veterans Wheelchair Games have been on my radar because I want to meet the broader community of veterans in wheelchairs and learn about their life and challenges after the military.”

Dudek understands firsthand the challenges of remaining on active duty with a disability. In 2007, the then-Army Major was wounded by an improvised explosive device (IED) while serving in Iraq. In addition to losing his friend and comrade Cpl. Brandon Craig in the blast, Dudek had to face his own life-changing spinal cord injury that left him with little mobility in his legs.

“You have to mourn,” he says. “I didn’t want to accept being an SCI patient who couldn’t use his legs anymore. But then I determined for myself that I would put big goals in front of me and find out if they’re impossible. The thing is, I haven’t found anything impossible yet.”

For Dudek, the first hurdle was remaining on active duty. But by 2009, he was selected as commander of the Army’s Warrior Transition Unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he pioneered policy to help injured service members like himself who needed the tools to either remain on active duty or transition into a successful life as a Veteran of the U.S. military. It was in his leadership role that he discovered the value of sports to the rehabilitation of injured soldiers.

By 2012, Dudek moved to the Pentagon to serve as deputy chief of staff at the Army’s Warrior Transition Command. While physically active, Dudek wanted the firsthand experience of what he knew his fellow soldiers and Veterans were relying on to rehabilitate. Just months later, he was off to his first Warrior Games, where he earned one gold and one silver medal in swimming.

“The more active I was, the more I realized things I thought were impossible really weren’t,” says Dudek, who now boasts five gold medals in swimming from two consecutive Warrior Games. “It proved that I could do anything.”

Dudek went on to race in the Marine Corps Marathon, Army Ten-Miler and the Navy-Air Force Half Marathon. He also learned to ski independently, and in 2014, competed in the inaugural Invictus Games in London.

“For all I’ve done in sports and in the military, the wheelchair quickly gets ignored,” he says. “The more you perform, the more you get to perform; the wheelchair isn’t even a factor.”

Having transitioned back to Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington where he hopes to retire, the Army Colonel now serves as the collective training chief of the Army’s I Corps. He knows one day soon he’ll be the one transitioning out of the military into Veteran status, and it’s then that he’s set his sights on some big, personal goals.

“Ninety percent of the disabled community is not physically active, and I don’t believe it’s because of money or venues, it’s participation,” he says. “I want to create something incredible in the Northwest to help grow participation and competition in adaptive sports. The passion I have for adaptive sports has driven me to this, but of course, I have to retire first.”

The 36th NVWG will be a step on the path of the post-retirement goals Dudek has set for himself. It’s also a step to reclaim his personal physical activity lost over the past couple of years due to busy work schedules and other personal demands. At the NVWG, he’ll compete in swimming, track, cycling and triathlon.

“I want to get physically active again,” he says. “But for me, the Games are more about the community than the competition. I’m excited about the possibilities and the people I get to meet.”

Still, amidst much success in both career and sport, Dudek says it all comes back to the true love of his life: his wife, Megan, who was there before his injury and has been his constant every day after.

“All good things are because of my wife,” he says. “I’m able to do so much only because of her support.”

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.

Paraplegic Mountaineer Mark Wellman to Feature Climbing Wall Demo at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Paralympian Mark Wellman

Paralympian Mark Wellman

World-renowned adaptive athlete and Paralympian Mark Wellman’s mission is to help others with disabilities discover their own unique ability to conquer mountains – literally.

Wellman, who became a mountaineer at age 12, determined for himself that there would be no mountain he could not conquer. Little did he know that roughly one decade later, at age 22, paralysis would become the greatest “mountain” of his life: a freak accident in the descent of the Seven Gables in the John Muir wilderness in 1982 left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“For me, laying in the hospital paralyzed was a fate worse than death,” Wellman says. “If I could have gotten out of bed and gotten to the window, I would have jumped out. I had wished the mountain would have taken my life instead of making me a paraplegic.”

Yet it was in his eight months of rehabilitation at the hospital that Wellman began to heal. He met a quadriplegic patient who inspired him to adapt to his disability – and ultimately reclaim the active lifestyle he’d always known.

“It wasn’t an easy transition; it took me a good year to really adjust,” Wellman says. “What really brought me back was adaptive sports.”

The journey into adaptive sports Wellman made in the mid-1980s is one he’s coached, mentored and encouraged disabled Veterans to join him on for more than 25 years. And it’s one he’ll continue at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games – taking place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City – with a climbing wall exhibit and speech for novice athletes.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it; a disability is not an easy thing to overcome,” Wellman says. “But the mind is a powerful thing, and it all starts with a positive attitude. Life isn’t over; there’s so much that people with disabilities can do.”

Wellman personifies that sentiment. In 1989, along with climbing partner Mike Corbett, he defeated all odds by climbing the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park. Two years later, the pair endured the 13-day trek to conquer Yosemite’s 2,200-foot vertical Tis-Sa-Ack route on Half Dome.

A two-time Paralympian, Wellman has competed with the United States Disabled Ski Team, and in 1993, became the first paraplegic to sit-ski across the Sierra Nevada mountain range with only the use of his arms. He also lit the cauldron for the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, Ga., and has visited with President George H.W. Bush in the Oval Office.

Still, just as important as climbing his own personal and physical mountains is Wellman’s desire to help others with disabilities overcome theirs. His 24-foot climbing wall – adapted for disabled athletes using an anchor system – will be available to NVWG athletes to try throughout the week of the Games.

Climbing equipment will be adapted depending on an athlete’s level of injury, Wellman says. For example, more severely disabled veterans will use pulley systems using a modified ascender with a pull-up bar. Paraplegics and amputees who are more physically fit will have the opportunity to go hand-over-hand – or free-climb – up the wall using a climbing harness and a rope, he said.

“It’s not a carnival ride,” Wellman says. “It’s a learning process, designed to help Veterans learn what climbing is all about.”

Novice athletes also will have the opportunity to sit down with Wellman at the Novice Meeting on Mon., June 27, at 2:30 p.m., in Hall 1. Wellman will talk about “Overcoming Barriers,” and answer questions about outdoor fitness and adaptive sports.

“A lot of people with disabilities think life is over, but they’re not seeing all of the possibilities,” Wellman says. “What’s so great about the Games and what the VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America do in hosting sporting events around the country is that it shows how to get back to life and back to enjoying physical fitness.”

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.

Disappointments May Mean Success for Navy Veteran Sharona Young at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Navy Veteran Sharona Young and her daughter Taylor.

Navy Veteran Sharona Young and her daughter Taylor.

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.

Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano to Compete in First National Veterans Wheelchair Games

US Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano with Prince Harry from Great Britain.

US Army Veteran Sualauvi Tuimalealiifano with Prince Harry from Great Britain.

For paralyzed Army Sergeant First Class Sualauvi “Sua” Tuimalealiifano, it was the faces of his three children that pulled him out of his darkest moments of loss and depression – just enough to discover that dreams, goals and ultimately hope might be regained on the surface of a rugby court.

“Depression and anxiety are a whole different kind of evil, and if I’d had the hand function for it, I probably would have taken myself out,” Sua says. “But what pulled me out was the fact that my kids were still young; I didn’t know what their future would be like without me around.”

Born in America Samoa, Sua at age six moved with his family to Kalihi, Hawaii. In June 1997, three weeks after graduating from high school, the rugged, natural-born leader enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he flourished as a paratrooper, jumpmaster and special operations soldier, serving multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in 2007, Sua was serving with the then-newly formed 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) in Southern Afghanistan when enemy fire struck. Sua, wearing roughly 100 pounds of military gear, jumped to the M240B swivel machine gun at the back of the truck, but as the driver took an abrupt turn, Sua was thrown to his back on the ground.

“I heard the snap like a hollow break of dry wood within, inside my ears,” Sua says. “But I was still fighting the war. So many of our supply channels and driving routes had been compromised. We were already short-manned, and often the only reason to send a chopper was for body bags or very severe injuries. I wasn’t about to chance it not knowing what it was. I didn’t see it as a problem, so I kept going.”

For months, Sua endured pain in the back of his neck so severe it “felt like one large needle piercing through it.” Still, he found it in himself to push through the deployment, until one morning in Aug. 2007, when he fell out of bed, his neck hitting the small table at his bedside.

“What happened was my upper half went to get out of bed, and the lower half wouldn’t go with me,” he says. “After my buddies helped me back into bed and I laid there for a few hours, I realized I couldn’t move anything from my waist down.”

Sua was medevaced to Bagram Air Base in Northern Afghanistan, and later to Germany to undergo surgery. After completing months-long rehabilitation at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, he returned home to Ft. Bragg, N.C. In need of more help and assistance from family, he, his wife, Shannon, and their three children moved to Hawaii, to a home that was not modified to meet his needs.

Sua refused to give up. He remained in the Army, first working at Special Operations Command Pacific and later as a counselor helping injured Veterans. But depression set in, and only compounded severely when a 2009 newspaper article left out critical facts about Sua’s combat service and injury.

“It wasn’t the story I told, and I didn’t want to show my face or be anywhere,” he says. “As much as I wanted to stay on active duty, I had all of these people calling me trying to help me out, and I had to set them straight with the story. I felt like I had betrayed my unit, as if I was perceived as having told a different storyline. It only pushed me further into depression.”

For the next six years, Sua determined to stay out of the public eye – and ultimately out of public altogether. With a cervical spinal cord injury that left him a quadriplegic, he believed any chance to get out of the house was too heavy a burden on those he would require for help.

That was until the U.S. Special Operations Command’s (USSOCOM) Care Coalition stepped in, encouraging Sua to fly to Tampa to participate in its adaptive sports program. It was there that he tried quad rugby for the first time, and suddenly, a new way of life began to open before him.

“Sports have been a complete game-changer for me in terms of living life with this injury,” Sua says. “Sports have given me a sense of purpose, the means to stay fit and goals to keep getting better. Even more, sports have opened up the opportunity for me to be around other veterans with similar injuries. It’s there that we share experiences and passions and discover what else can be done.”

Sua and his family have since moved to Tampa, where he is now a valued member of the Tampa Generals quad rugby team. The retired Sergeant First Class also has competed in rugby, wheelchair racing, shot put and discus at the Warrior Games, Invictus Games and Dixie Games.

On June 27, 2016, Sua will roll into his first-ever National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) with the same relentless passion and competitive spirit as he competes in quad rugby, discus, club, weightlifting and slalom. Beyond that, he’s eager to learn and encourage alongside his fellow disabled veterans – whether injured in combat or not.

“I was injured in combat, but veterans shouldn’t feel like they had to be in order to play adaptive sports; we don’t owe one person more than another,” he says. “An injury comes with side blinders, which will bring you back into depression if you let it. It requires constant repetition, reminding yourself that there’s hope.”

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.

Toyota Sponsors National Veterans Wheelchair Games for 17th Consecutive Year

Adults and children signing the Toyota Wall of Inspiration at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Adults and children signing the Toyota Wall of Inspiration at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Aside from seeing Toyota’s signature-wrapped vehicles bearing the National Veterans Wheelchair Games logo at the 2016 Games in Salt Lake City, Veteran athlete participants might also notice a local and national commitment by the car company to programs that support Veterans’ health, mobility and well-being.

The 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – which take place June 27-July 2, 2016, in Salt Lake City – will again welcome Toyota as a national host sponsor, which includes support for the Games as well as sponsorship of the “Wall of Appreciation,” where Veteran athletes, family members and volunteers are invited to handwrite their messages of thanks and support.

“We are totally committed to our Veterans – the great men and women who have served our country,” said Mark Oldenburg, national fleet marketing, mobility and strategic planning manager for Toyota USA. ““We’ve had a relationship with Paralyzed Veterans of America going back to 1999, and each year, we try to do even more.”

Toyota also will provide a fleet of 12 loaner vehicles for official staff to drive as they commute to various event venues. Each vehicle will be wrapped with colorful graphics inspired by the NVWG logo.

Toyota also will present Paralyzed Veterans of America with a wheelchair accessible Toyota Sienna featuring a graphic treatment honoring disabled Veterans for use in their headquarters in Washington, D.C.

As in past years, Veterans can view and tour one of Toyota Mobility’s wheelchair accessible vehicles at the Disabled Sports, Recreation and Fitness Expo, taking place Sunday, June 27, and featuring more than 100 sports and recreation organizations and companies that provide health, wellness and accessibility products. A unique display of wheelchair accessible Toyota Sienna vans also will be featured adjacent to the competition area throughout the week.

“Toyota has a strong core message of mobility for all, and that includes those with disabilities,” Oldenburg said. “Our Veterans are a core part of that strategy, and we want to do as much as we can to serve them.”

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.

Mobile App Launches for 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

NVWG Mobile App ad imageThe 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) are going mobile – with a new app featuring real-time information about events, transportation and assistance.

The free NVWG mobile app, available for iOS and Android users on June 13, 2016, will be the go-to resource for Games attendees to receive real-time schedule updates, team assignments/brackets, interactive maps and breaking news. A web version of the app is also available for those without a mobile device. Download information:

“The launch of the very first NVWG mobile app represents a 21st Century leap forward for the country’s largest wheelchair sporting event,” said Sherman Gillums, Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “These Games have served as the culmination of rehabilitation and celebration of camaraderie for paralyzed Veterans for 36 years. This exciting new app will provide athletes and attendees with services and information right at their fingertips in order to enhance the Games experience. I’m proud of the partnership between Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs as we strive to use advanced technology to make this year’s Games the best ever.”

The mobile app – sponsored by USAA for the 36th annual Games – enables users to view schedules, accessible transportation, first aid information, special events and breaking news. The app also will feature an interactive guide and floor plan for the Disabled Sports, Recreation and Fitness Expo, taking place Mon., June 27, and featuring more than 100 sports and recreation organizations and companies that provide health, wellness and accessibility products.

“I’m excited about the launch of the NVWG app, which will make it easier for Veterans, staff, sponsors, volunteers and other stakeholders to access critical information about the Games that will improve their experience,” said Dave Tostenrude, director of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

To download the NVWG app on iPhone, iPad and Apple devices, click here. To download on Android devices, click here.

For more information about downloading the NVWG app, view the video below.

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.

Registration Opens for 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Archery at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas, TX

An estimated 600 wheelchair athletes will arrive in Salt Lake City in June 2016 for the 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games – and many will notice a heightened effort to help them take their training and competition to the next level.

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), co-sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America, will ring in its 36th year in the scenic capital city of Utah. Salt Lake City will build on its experience in hosting the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games by offering top-notch venues, hotels, transportation and hospitality.

“The hosting for the Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City has really carried over to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games,” said Tom Brown, director of the Games for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “The same excitement, same attitudes and same drive is present as that of the Paralympic Games, and the Wheelchair Games will be another chance for making life better for the disabled and showing off what these disabled athletes can do.”

The 2016 Games will offer 19 wheelchair sports as well as two exhibition sports – triathlon – offered in partnership with USA Paratriathlon – and bobsledding, a new Paralympic winter sport. While triathlon is open to an unlimited number of Games participants, bobsledding will be limited to 50 participants who will be required to undergo an additional health screening.

The 2016 Games in the Beehive state also will be the first time the weightlifting event will be replaced with power lifting in an effort to match the national and Paralympic standards for the sport, said David Tostenrude, director of the Games for the VA. “We’re looking at opportunities with each of our events to really make sure it’s reflective of what’s available across the country,” he said.

The Games will kick off on June 27, 2016, with the annual Disabled Sports, Recreation and Fitness Expo, a tradeshow of more than 50 sports and recreation organizations and companies that provide health, wellness and accessibility products.

The day before (June 26) and the day of the Expo, the Games also will offer participants a chance to be classified in air rifles and/or participate in a table tennis, quad rugby or power lifting clinic. “We’re doing the weightlifting power press clinic to orient the competitors as to the difference between weightlifting and power lifting,” Tostenrude said.

World-renowned mountain climber and paraplegic Mark Wellman, most famous for his 3,000-foot climb of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in 1989, also will be on-site throughout the week to set up a climbing wall and instruct athletes with varying levels of ability on climbing techniques. Wellman also will deliver a motivational talk to novice athletes.

Work is also underway to bring golf simulators to the Games Expo and events throughout the week, in hopes of spurring athletes’ interest in adaptive golf and long drive golf.

“Expo registration takes about an hour, but we can keep the athletes busy all day if they want to participate in the clinics,” Brown said.

Registration for the Games, which opens in early January and runs through April 15, 2016, also will be slightly different for athletes this year in that registration packets will no longer be mailed to athletes’ addresses. Instead, athletes can access the registration packet at wheelchairgames.org, where they can download and print the form, fill it out and mail it back in, Brown said.

“Our major goal for the Games is to move to online registration,” Brown said. “This will make the process quicker and easier for the Veterans. This year, the registration is available to be filled out online and next year it will be completely automated.”

Above all, wheelchair athletes this year will notice a small community feel in Salt Lake City, as well as a heightened effort by both Paralyzed Veterans of America and the VA to help them take their competition to a higher level – not just the week of the Games but throughout the year, Brown and Tostenrude said.

“All of the Games are successful in their own way,” Brown said, “but if there’s one thing that stands out about Salt Lake City, it will probably be the volunteers and the way the community gives back and supports the Games.”

Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.

35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Come to a Close in Dallas

Passing the torch from Dallas to Salt Lake City for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games June 25, 2015.

The torch is passed from Dallas to Salt Lake City veterans at National Veterans Wheelchair Games 2015 closing ceremonies in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Rick Yeatts.

More than 1,200 people gathered at the Sheraton Dallas hotel Friday evening, June 26, 2015, to close out the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG).

Hosted by Chuck Cooperstein, radio personality and radio voice of the Dallas Mavericks, the ceremony recognized the more than 600 wheelchair athletes as well as the more than 2,500 community volunteers, sponsors, coaches and staff who supported the event.

“We all felt a connection as we watched you reach for your goals, overcome your injuries, defeat battles and rise above fears and frustrations with the will to win,” said Dr. Wendell Jones, acting network director and chief executive officer of Veterans Integrated Service Network 17. “Each participant is an American veteran – first, last and always.”

Sherman Gillums, Jr., deputy executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, thanked not only to the VA as well as the coaches, staff and volunteers but a particular group that holds a special place in his heart – the caregivers and families of veteran athletes.

“Families, you give us our biggest motivation because we do it all for you and we want to make you proud,” Gillums said. “There’s also perhaps the most overlooked group we need to recognize – caregivers – the hidden heroes… For caregivers, things may not move as fast as you like or as perfectly as you like, but we wouldn’t be here without your selfless intervention in our lives.”

The evening also included the presentation of the prestigious Spirit of the Games award. In a departure from past years, two Spirit awards were given out – one to 72-year-old Marine Corps veteran Eugene Tatom, and a posthumous award to Army veteran David Fowler, who passed away in February 2014 at the age of 53. His wife, Marilou, accepted the award on his behalf.

“I want to tell you, this is a surprise,” Tatom said, “and normally I have something to say all the time.”

The Games came to an official close as VA North Texas Health Care System Director Jeffrey Milligan and Paralyzed Veterans of America Lone Star Chapter President Steven Ray passed on the torch to the host of the 36th Games – Salt Lake City.

Steve Young, director of Veterans Affairs for the Salt Lake City Health Care System, and Mark Shepherd, executive director of the Mountain States chapter accepted the torch as representatives of the 2016 Games.

Closing out the evening was a highlight reel of wheelchair athletes participating in the 19 events that took place throughout the week.
“Here at the Games, we don’t make ordinary people into extraordinary; you just are extraordinary,” Gillums said. “And it’s you who set an example for the entire disabled community – that’s what the Games are all about.”

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games 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.

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.