Veteran Athletes to Strive, Live, Conquer at 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

square-NVWG-ad-v1During the week of June 27, 2016, the letters SLC will take on a meaning above and beyond the acronym for Utah’s scenic capital city.

That’s because more than 600 military Veteran athletes in wheelchairs will gather in Salt Lake City for the 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games, ready to leave their own unique mark on the 2016 Game’s SLC theme: “Strive, Live, Conquer.”

“The organizing committee wanted to come up with words that epitomized our Veterans, some of whom are coming from a very dark or vulnerable place and back to life,” said Jill Atwood, chief communications officer for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System. “Each Veteran will define strive, live and conquer differently, but ultimately it means living forward; no longer allowing a disability to define you; living life to the fullest; and overcoming all barriers and obstacles.”

A sub-theme to “Strive, Live, Conquer” at the 36th NVWG is “Games Elevated,” consistent with Salt Lake City’s 4,000-plus foot elevation, scenic snow-capped mountains and presence within the only state that is home to five national parks.

“Our hope is that the competition is elevated as well,” Atwood said.

The 36th annual Games also represent a heightened effort on the part of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America to help Veterans “elevate” their training and competition through the promotion of adaptive sports opportunities in their communities and surrounding areas.

“One of our major goals this year is empowering Veterans to not let their training and competition end at the conclusion of the Games, but to return home with a commitment to get involved in their home communities and focus on fitness and activity,” said Tom Brown, director of the Games for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “‘Strive, Live, Conquer’ is all about taking their game to the next level.”

Among activities that have been “elevated” for the 36th annual Games is the inclusion of foot-powered recumbent cycles to the 10K cycling race event, as well as the shift to the national weightlifting standard of Powerlifting for paraplegic classes.

“Strive, Live, Conquer for the 2016 NVWG reflects our effort to set the stage for Veterans to push beyond the barriers to greater heights of competition and opportunities in their lives,” said Dave Tostenrude, director of the NVWG. “In 2016, we have expanded our sports opportunities and stepped it up to provide a greater challenge of competition.”

“Strive, Live, Conquer” also will be weaved throughout the Game’s two exhibition events: triathlon and bobsledding. “Both are new and emerging Paralympic sports that introduce Veterans to greater opportunities and adventures that are available to them,” Tostenrude added.

As Salt Lake City was home to the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, a Paralympic theme showcasing bobsledding will be evident in the opening ceremonies and events throughout the week. Army Veteran and two-time Olympic gold medalist in bobsledding Steve Holcomb will be meeting and greeting Veterans and in some cases riding with them down the bobsled track, Atwood said.

“It takes a brave soul to jump into that bobsled,” she said. “That in and of itself plays into the theme because our Veterans have to overcome some fears to discover that they can live life to the fullest as they’re pulling G’s around the corner and flying down the track. It’s in that moment that you’re striving, living and conquering.”

About triathlon, Atwood added, “As an exhibition sport, there won’t be a competition; the only competition Veterans will have is themselves. They’ll be striving, living and conquering any fears they may have – and discovering that they can do this, that they can finish this and that they can be good at 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.

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.