Navy Veteran Jeff DeLeon longs for the day when extraordinary becomes the new normal.
A glimpse of that extraordinary is something DeLeon witnesses each year as he competes alongside his fellow disabled Veterans at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). But as the 36th NVWG closed on Sat., July 1, in Salt Lake City, DeLeon’s own brand of extraordinary will be on display as he accepts the 2016 Spirit of the Games award.
“If everyone did what they were capable of, it wouldn’t be seen as amazing; it’d just be normal,” DeLeon says. “My hope is to inspire more people to take those extra steps to do the things they never thought possible.”
For DeLeon, things he never thought possible were opened at his first NVWG year in 2009, and in the true Spirit of the Games, DeLeon has been paying his novice year forward ever since. In 2013, after serving as President of Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Oregon Chapter, DeLeon stood up Veterans for Mobility-Impaired America (VMIA), which empowers Veterans to serve their communities by helping non-Veterans with disabilities who do not have the same access to adaptive sports and equipment.
“Part of the rehabilitation process is making a difference in someone else’s life,” he says. “And by doing that, we’re going to make the world a better place.”
DeLeon traces his own journey back to the recreational therapists, coaches, friends and family members who made a difference in his life after a car accident in 1999 left him a T-6 paraplegic.
“Jeff has overcome a lot in his life personally and has used adaptive sports and recreation as a tool to rediscover himself,” said VA recreational therapist Carrie Booker. “He’s selfless; he’s always welcoming others with open arms.”
For Booker, DeLeon is a Veteran she can always rely on to go the extra mile – literally. DeLeon is known for driving hundreds of miles to meet a newly injured Veteran to encourage, coach and share equipment, she says, and he brings the same spirit each year to the NVWG, where he is known by his fellow athletes as humble, supportive and fiercely competitive. DeLeon now boasts more than 40 medals from the Games, including 37 gold.
At the 36th Games, one of DeLeon’s standout moments was a 10-run rally in the 7th inning with his softball team facing two outs. It was DeLeon’s three-run home run that led his team to an unlikely victory.
“I watched his spirit lead his softball team in one of the most historic comebacks in Games history,” said Bob Crowe, softball official for the NVWG, who nominated DeLeon for the award. “Jeff is a tireless, selfless individual who embodies what all athletes should strive for: excellence on and off the athletic field.”
DeLeon’s natural athletic ability and hard work are what have earned him participation with U.S. Paralympics throwing javelin and discus, and helped him train tirelessly for his ultimate goal of becoming a Paralympian in air pistols or archery for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But even with the Paralympics on his radar, the Navy Veteran will abruptly stop thinking about his own goals to help a fellow disabled Veteran discover their own.
“I’ll do whatever it is someone wants to do, whether hunting, fishing, tennis, even crocheting,” he says. “It’s all about building relationships, getting out there and giving up the excuses as to why you can’t do something.”
It’s that spirit that DeLeon brings to the novices at the NVWG – and makes him more than worthy of the Spirit of the Games award, Booker said.
“Jeff always makes sure the novices on his team get more than their minimal playing time,” Booker said. “He has this tremendous positive attitude, and he’s sort of everywhere; it’s like there’s 10 of him running around. He’s always making other people’s experiences memorable.”
Brittany Ballenstedt is a military spouse, freelance journalist and photographer in Washington, D.C.