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.

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.

David Fowler Posthumously Receives Spirit of the Games Award

David and Marilou Fowler

David and Marilou Fowler

David Abbot Fowler was a native Texan. He loved being outdoors, he played soccer at Houston’s Sharptown High School in the 1970s, and he took a job in construction after high school. In 1983 he joined the Army, where he was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and participated in the U.S. invasion of Grenada. A 1984 diving accident resulted in a high cervical injury that left him paralyzed from his shoulders down.

Suddenly, David found himself on a journey he had never envisioned—as a quadriplegic looking at life from a completely different viewpoint. Although at first he was hesitant to attend the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), it gave him a new attitude.

A few years ago he recalled, “For six-and-a-half years I sat at home thinking there wasn’t a lot I could do.” He then learned how to bowl from a wheelchair, and at his first NVWG, David won his first gold medal.

It occurred to him: “If I can do this, what else can I do?” And he spread that message year after year to other veterans at the NVWG.

For more than 20 years, David competed in numerous events including power soccer, slalom, wheelchair races and power relay events, using a sip and puff to drive his power chair.

His famous nickname was born from competition as well. NWVG founder Tom Brown remembers, “David was coming around a turn during a race and we were cheering him on; then I started yelling, “Blow, David, Blow! Blow, David, Blow!”

Others joined in as David raced on; but he thought he heard his fans cheering, “Go, David, Go! Go, David, Go!”

As he got closer and realized what the crowd was actually cheering, ”He began laughing so hard he couldn’t blow and so his chair stopped during the race,” Tom recalled. Forever after, David became known as Puff Daddy, even adopting the moniker as his email address.

Year after year, as David returned to the Games as a member of the Texas Blasters, his legacy grew. He did not miss a competition in 20 years. His wife, Marilou, whom he married in 1995, was his constant companion, caregiver and fellow advocate for other injured Veterans.

At the Games this year, Marilou said that she is here to continue her husband’s legacy. ”He loved the Games,” she said. ”He loved Paralyzed Veterans of America and being involved and helping other people. I’m just happy to continue what he started. He inspired so many people; not just the athletes from Texas but from all over.”

In 2008, David received special recognition for his achievements in adaptive sports: he was one of just 12 gold medal winners from the National Veterans Wheelchair Games to be featured on Cheerios boxes through an agreement with the Veterans Canteen Service and the General Mills Corp.

Richard Hoover, editor of PVA’s Sports ’N Spokes magazine, opined that some people have an ”indescribable ’thing’ that sets them apart from their peers by listening to how people speak, what they speak about and how they carry themselves when not speaking. David had that ’thing.’ ”

Said PVA Sports Director Ernie Butler, ”David Fowler, more than anyone, understood and embraced everything about sports and recreation, because he saw how it affected his life psychologically and physically after his injury. He never backed down from a challenge. He went hunting, fishing, skiing and still always had time to be a mentor to other Veterans with high-level injuries. He was an inspiration to all.”

For his dedication to the NVWG, his mentorship, his advocacy for Veterans with disabilities of all his spirit—David Fowler was posthumously awarded the Spirit of the Games Award Friday, June 26, 2015, at the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.

The David Fowler Memorial Endowment has been set up through Paralyzed Veterans of America and will assist in educating clinicians about spinal cord injury, researching better care, and assisting veterans with satisfying careers.

Continuing to Serve: VA Secretary Watches NVWG Athletes Pay it Forward in a Big Way

VA Secretary Bob McDonald at NVWG Kids' Day.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games Kids’ Day.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald walked into his first experience at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games Tuesday in Dallas and witnessed the Veterans he serves paying that service forward – to nearly two dozen children with disabilities.

McDonald attended the annual Kids Day – a long-held tradition of the Games that are now in their 35th year. Co-presented by Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Games invite local children with disabilities to be mentored by and play sports alongside Games competing athletes.

“All of these men and women have a big sense of purpose,” McDonald said. “They’re not in the military any longer, but the idea that they can bring in young kids who are in wheelchairs to demonstrate to them that they have a whole life ahead of them and can achieve things that they might not have thought were possible – and see successful people who have done it – is so meaningful.”

In addition to greeting children and athlete mentors, McDonald watched as Kids Day participants maneuvered a slalom course of challenging obstacles for wheelchair athletes.

“It takes what we do, which is a big sense of purpose – caring for veterans – and it blows it up even bigger and shows that if we can care for Veterans, imagine what those Veterans can do for society in terms of paying it forward,” McDonald said.

McDonald, a graduate of West Point and a five-year Army Veteran who served in the 82nd Airborne Division, spent the remainder of the afternoon watching Veteran athletes compete in quad rugby, power soccer, softball and wheelchair basketball. A rugby player at West Point, McDonald admitted, “I don’t think I played as tough a game of rugby as these guys played today.”

VA Secretary Bob McDonald at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

VA Secretary Bob McDonald tries the slalom course at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Over the years, the Games have morphed into an important element of a Veteran’s rehabilitation, and McDonald stressed that the VA is committed to doing whatever it takes to help Veterans with disabilities – from post-traumatic stress to amputations to spinal cord injuries – recover both physically and emotionally. The NVWG – as well as other VA programs including equine therapy, animal therapy and acupuncture – all show that the VA is willing to “try anything that works,” he said.

“What we’ve discovered over the years is that adaptive sports is an incredible way to provide therapy to those who have been injured,” McDonald added. “That involves therapy in the physical sense, which is very important, and also in the spiritual sense, which I think is equally if not more important, because if you can get the Veteran to realize that their potential is unlimited, they’ll try things that they might never otherwise try.”

The NVWG also serve as an avenue for Veterans to compete on a national and sometimes international level, including the quadrennial Paralympic Games. McDonald said the options in terms of sports for wheelchair athletes are endless, and he hopes to see novices and experienced athletes take what they’ve learned and pay it forward in their communities.

“Athletics is a great way to express yourself and your individuality – whether it’s the way you design your wheelchair, or the way you play rugby, or the way you take your jump shot,” he said. To the athletes, he says: “Always reach for the stars. What I hope is that this is just the nucleus of the activity. When these Veterans get back to their geographic locations, I hope they go even further and involve more people. This event is really about teaching them to teach others.”

Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Wichita Falls, Texas.

35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Kick Off in Dallas

Veteran from Florida at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.

Florida veteran athletes enter the opening ceremonies of the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas. Photo by Porfirio Solarzano.

Veteran athletes from nearly every state as well as a team from the United Kingdom paraded into the opening ceremonies of the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas Sunday evening.—close to 600 in total, including 150 novices. Several dignitaries were in attendance, including Joseph Dalpiaz, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Heart of Texas Health Care Network; Texas Governor Greg Abbott; Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings; and Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) National President Al Kovach Jr.

The evening opening ceremonies followed the Disabled Sports, Recreation & Fitness Exposition (Expo) as well as several afternoon sports clinics.

Dalpiaz addressed the participants, saying, “Some of you are pros who have gone from competing at this event to competing as world-class athletes at the national and international level, and some of you are here for the first time, wondering what to expect. Over the next few days…we will see hundreds of veterans who will teach us about courage, perseverance and bravery.”

Kovach referenced the transformational process the Games played in his life.

“You know what’s amazing is that I was a novice in San Antonio in 1993, and here I am 22 years later and president of Paralyzed Veterans,” Kovach said.

He observed, “I look around and see many new faces and many familiar ones—of all races and nationalities, male and female and different accents. This is a great reflection of today’s more diverse military, and that’s what these Games are all about.”

After reading a letter addressed to veteran athletes from former President George W. Bush, Gov. Abbott cited the many reasons why Texas is a prime location for hosting the Games, in part because of the state’s strong military presence. Fifteen military bases are located in Texas, and the state is home to nearly two million veterans, active duty military, Reserve and National Guard service members and their families, Abbott said, adding that Texas is also the only state in the nation with a governor in a wheelchair.

“I learned what you already know and that is our lives are not defined by our challenges,” Abbot said. “Instead, we get to define our lives by the way we overcome the challenges we face. It is our freedom to show that character, and not the circumstances that make a man or a woman. We know that we can be some of the premier athletes of the world, or we can be governor or anything we want to be.”

Opening ceremonies kicked off with the annual state-by-state parade of veteran athletes. VA North Texas Health Care System Director Jeffrey Milligan and Paralyzed Veterans of America Lone Star Chapter President Steven Ray lit the torch, reflecting the official start of the Games.

“We appreciate what you’ve given, the sacrifices you have given,” Mayor Rawlings said. “That’s another reason we’re so excited about this week—we get to focus on the abilities you have, not on those other three letters. You are going to be great examples for our citizens to reach higher and do more.”

All events this week are free and open to the public, with the Games running through Friday, June 26. 35th More information on the National Veterans Wheelchair Games can be found at this link.

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.

34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Says Farewell to Philly, Hello to Dallas

closing ceremonies of 34th NVWGAfter a fantastic week of competition and camaraderie, the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games came to a close on Sunday night, Aug. 17.

The evening was highlighted by the announcement of Spirit of the Games Award winner Gabriel Diaz de Leon, who arrived on the stage while the theme from Rocky blasted through the Grand Hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Rarely at a loss for words, Diaz de Leon could barely come up with “This is amazing.”

Presented by Stuart Cohen of Invacare, which sponsored the Spirit of the Games Award, Diaz de Leon settled in nicely and said, “The Spirit of the Games encompasses each and every one of us today.” He thanked Paralyzed Veterans of America and all the recreational and physical therapists from the Department of Veterans Affairs who make sure the athletes get to the Games, and thanked his wife, as well.

The emcee, Ron Burke, host of SportsNet Central and a weekly Philadelphia Eagles roundtable show, introduced VIPs in attendance and thanked the sponosors of the 34th Games.

Temple University’s OwlCapella group performed the National Anthem and then Paralyzed Veterans Executive Director Homer Townsend offered thanks to all those who had made the event a success. He paid tribute to the athletes as well, recalling the adage, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” He praised the athletes’ dedication and reminded them that they teach by example.

Gary Devansky, interim director of VISN 4 since November, said he it was an honor to be at the Games to witness some of the week’s events and was extremely proud of the VA’s involvement, thanking the local Philadelphia organizing committee.

Devansky said gave credit to the VA’s adaptive sports program for helping empower veterans to improve their well-being and health. “It’s mission redefined,” he said. He closed by telling the record number of athletes at the Games to share the spirit and memories of the NVWG with others and encourage them to get involved.

The Games torch was passed to the director of VA North Texas Health Care System, Jeff Milligan, and president of Lone Star Paralyzed Veterans, Steven Ray, as Dallas will host the 35th Games. For the finale, athletes enjoyed a funny and poignant recap of the week in video prior to a closing banquet. A week enjoyed by all, expressed multiple times by “I can’t believe it’s over” and “See you in Dallas!”

Tim W. Jackson is a writer and editor in Weaverville, N.C.

Gabriel “Gabe” Diaz de Leon is the 2014 NVWG Spirit of the Games Award Winner

Spirit of the Games 2014: LeonGabriel “Gabe” Diaz de Leon talks about being at the twilight of his athletic career. He’s OK with that. He still has a lot to give back, as he has been doing since discovering adaptive sports. In having done so, Gabe has been selected as the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Spirit of the Games award winner.

Veteran athlete Bruce Kuker said that early in this year’s Games he saw Gabe providing “instruction and positive feedback to two complete strangers” who were both novice athletes. Gabe really is an example of a truly spirited athlete,” he said.

Fellow competitor Carlos Leon credits Gabe with helping him fulfill his dreams of becoming a Paralympian. “I know, without a doubt, I would not have been able to reach that level of performance without the support and guidance of Gabe,” Carlos said.

His coach and rec therapist at the VA Hospital in San Antonio described him as “active in training and preparing newly injured vets and active duty members with all adaptive programs” in VA, DOD, and the Paralympic community. Gabe is a great athlete who has used sports and recreation as rehab and beyond. He truly exemplifies the “Spirit of the Games.”

Gabe, 51, “loves coaching military athletes” and looks for ways to give back what’s been given to him. It can be coaching and advice or field chairs and throwing implements.

When he sees newly injured young vets who have been injured, he wants them “to know that life isn’t over.” He knows they’re scared because he was. But so many doors have opened for him since his injury, he encourages others to take advantage of their opportunities, too.

Gabe said he’s loved this year’s Games as much as his first in 1986, this year adding swimming to his repertoire of track and field, bowling, rugby, table tennis, and nine-ball. “I probably swim like a rock, but, hey, somebody has to lose so I’m gracious enough to do that.”

Perhaps swimming isn’t his top sport now, but he has regularly won medals in the other sports in which he competes, as well as at the top levels of adaptive sports.

To get to this point of accomplishment, Gabe took a long but rewarding journey. Working as an E4 Army military policeman, his vehicle took on enemy fire in Honduras. The jeep flipped, Gabe was thrown, and paralysis was the immediate result. That was 1984. After eight months of rehabilitation, and while still holding out hope that his Army career wasn’t over, he discovered wheelchair sports.

Archery was first but other sports soon followed. He became so adept at the throwing sports (javelin, discus, shot put) that he made the 1988 Paralympic team and in Seoul won bronze medals in discus and shot put. In 1992 in Barcelona, he set the world record for javelin and won silver in discus. In Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, he won bronze in discus. In Athens in 2004, Gabe missed bronze in shot put by the narrowest of margins. He also played four years of collegiate wheelchair basketball at the University of Texas–Arlington, winning two national championships.

“That was a real high in my life,” Gabe said, but that high quickly disappeared when he received notice from the Army declaring him unfit for duty. His temporary retirement was now permanent. But that’s when he decided to immerse himself into adaptive athletics. The result has been a rewarding, life-affirming post-military career for himself and life-changing for those whose lives he has touched.

Carlos Leon summed it up perfectly: “Gabe contributes so much of his time to mentor and coach other athletes all over the country…He is the best example of what the “Spirit of the Games” stands for.

Congratulations Gabe Diaz de Leon!

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