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.

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.