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.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Local, National Organizers Collaborate on 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Basketball game at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in DallasEnthusiasm is running high for the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City – with organizers on the local and national level coming together to make it another life-changing week for Veterans with disabilities.

The 36th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) – co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America – will feature the program’s signature 19 wheelchair sports and two exhibition sports for disabled Veterans June 27-July 2, 2016, in the scenic capital city of Utah.

“We are overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Salt Lake City community – the volunteers and sponsors who are coming out to support this event,” said David Tostenrude, Games director for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). “The enthusiasm from the 2002 Winter Olympics is spilling over to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, and that will make the program all the more special.”

Tostenrude along with national representatives from the VA and Paralyzed Veterans of America – including Games founder and Paralyzed Veterans of America Games director Tom Brown – gathered in Salt Lake City in late April to work with local organizers for the 2016 Games.

The VA Salt Lake City Health Care System and the Mountain States Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America are effectively collaborating to ensure the Games offer top-notch venues, hotels, transportation and hospitality, Tostenrude said.

Several businesses in and around Salt Lake City also are ramping up support for the Games, going so far as letting employees off for a day or half-day to volunteer at the Games, Brown said.

“The Utah Transit Authority is bending over backwards not only to get the veterans to and from the venues in a timely manner, but also providing support for volunteers to get to the convention center,” Brown said.

The theme of the 2016 Games – Strive, Live, Conquer – will be evident in events and presentations throughout the week. Triathlon, offered in partnership with USA Paratriathlon, and bobsledding, a new Paralympic winter sport, will be featured as this year’s exhibition sports.

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.

Veterans, families and volunteers participating in the 2016 NVWG are encouraged to book travel and hotel arrangements as soon as possible. Hotel information can be found at this link.

“So many are showing support above and beyond to ensure the success of the 2016 Games,” Brown said. “We can’t wait.”

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

Torch Passed to 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City

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

National Veterans Wheelchair Games 2015 closing ceremonies in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Rick Yeatts.

As the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games came to a close Friday June 26, 2015, thoughts quickly moved to the planning of the 2016 Games in Salt Lake City.

Nearly 600 athletes watched as the 35th Games came to a close Friday evening, June 26, and wondered what’s to come in the Beehive state when the 36th Games arrive in June of 2016.

“I think that Salt Lake City will offer a hometown, family feel to the Games,” said Tom Brown, founder of the NVWG and Games director for Paralyzed Veterans of America.

While the official theme and logo are still being determined, the obvious underlying theme will be the beauty and the natural wonders of Utah, said Jill Atwood, Chief Communications Officer for the VA Salt Lake City Health Care System.

“Veterans and their families are going to think it’s extraordinarily beautiful,” she said.

The 36th NVWG will offer 19 wheelchair sports spread out through the entire Salt Lake Community. “We are excited to be bringing the Games to Salt Lake City. People will see true competition and realize that a disability doesn’t mean inability.” says Dave Tostenrude, Director, NVWG for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Salt Lake City’s experience in hosting the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Games will mean streamlined transportation and access to hotels and venues, Brown said. Lodging will be in close proximity to Games’ venues, and the transportation provided had a role in Paralympic transportation in 2002, he said. The annual Block Party will take place in Olympic Village, he added.

“There’s a lot of history in Salt Lake City as far as the Olympics are concerned,” Brown said. “Many in the community remember the Paralympics and what a great time they had.”

There is nothing better than watching these men and women reach goals and achieve greatness beyond what they thought they could. We are so thrilled to be a part of the magic. See you in 2016! Atwood said.

The NVWG are co-presented by Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

 

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.