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.

Sports Clinics Open New Opportunities to 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games Athletes

Veterans gathered at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games Clinics

Veterans gathered at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games at one of the four sports clinics offered June 21, 2015. Photo by Brittany Ballenstedt.

More than 50 novice and experienced wheelchair athletes gathered at the opening of the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas for one of four sports clinics.

Each year, the collection of sports clinics keep with the spirit of the Games in empowering veterans with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, amputations and other neurological injuries to live more active and healthy lives through wheelchair sports and recreation. This year’s sports clinics enabled wheelchair athletes to try one of four new sports – table tennis, quad rugby, power soccer and basketball.

For Bryan Anderson, an Army veteran and triple amputee, coming to his first Games as an exhibitor gave him the perfect chance to try quad rugby – a sport that has long garnered his attention since he was injured 10 years ago. The clinic – which featured 11 novice and seasoned athletes – had him hooked, he said.

“There’s so much strategy involved; I thought everyone just got out there and smashed each other,” Anderson said. “I’ve been so busy that I haven’t hadn’t time to commit to a team, so doing something like this that’s impromptu is great. I think it’s something I’ll pursue more.”

Veterans also were given an opportunity to try table tennis and learn from an expert about technique and equipment. Ken Johnson, an Air Force veteran and amputee, tried tabled tennis at the 33rd Games in Tampa, and this year has come back to compete in the official Games table tennis events.

“This is the first year I’ve been in the open competition for table tennis,” Johnson said. “I have a machine at home that helps me practice, so I’m looking forward to see if and how that’s going to help me in the competition this year.”

More than 20 veterans also participated in this year’s clinic for power soccer, which is the first competitive team sport designed and developed specifically for power wheelchair users. Power soccer, which is played in a gymnasium on a regulation basketball court, features teams of four players who attack, defend and spin-kick a 13-inch soccer ball in a challenging game similar to traditional able-bodied soccer.

“Because the game is two-dimensional, we try to create some artificial space on the field,” said Chris Mulholland of the US Power Soccer Association. “We try to make the rules as much like the outdoor game as possible with a couple exceptions – and those exceptions are the two big things we tried to get clinic participants to understand.”

Finally, roughly 10 wheelchair athletes gathered to learn tips and techniques from experts in wheelchair basketball – one of the oldest and most popular wheelchair sports. Leroy Barnett, a paralyzed Army veteran, said he had been playing basketball his entire life up until his injury and was thrilled to learn new information for continuing his beloved pastime.

“I’ve been playing basketball since I was a kid, and once you know the fundamentals, it doesn’t matter if you’re standing or in a chair, you just get your arms moving,” Barnett said. “This is going to be something I’m going to pursue as long as I can. As long as I can move my body, I’m going to do it.”

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.