First-Ever Triathlon Exhibition Comes to 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Swimming event at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Dallas.Sixteen Veteran wheelchair athletes will test their strength and endurance in swimming, cycling and road racing at the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games’ first-ever Triathlon exhibition.

The three-stage race – featured at the 2016 Games taking place June 27-July 2, in Salt Lake City – will guide participants through a 200M swim, 10K cycling and 2.5K road race. The first-time exhibition event will take place Thurs., June 30, at Liberty Park in downtown Salt Lake City.

“I brought up the idea at the 33rd Games in Tampa of doing triathlon as an exhibition, and leadership helped make that idea a reality quickly,” said Andy MacDonald, associate sports director for Paralyzed Veterans of America and a nine-time Ironman triathlon finisher. MacDonald – who helped stand up and coach the triathlon team at Georgetown University – will serve as head official for the exhibition.

Paratriathlon’s emergence as an adaptive sport is evidenced by its debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where Paralympic athletes will compete in a sprint distance race involving a 750M swim, 20K cycling and 5K road race.

While a new Paralympic sport, the triathlon exhibition at the NVWG will not be limited to elite athletes. The exhibition was designed to help Veterans in every community across the United States seize the opportunity for regular daily exercise as well as participation in cycling races and other community events.

“The hope is that the event educates and motivates our Veterans beyond the week in Salt Lake City,” MacDonald said.

A first-year exhibition sport at the Games, triathlon will be a non-medal event. Racers will compete in either the Quad Open or Para Open, and male and female categories. The race will reflect USA Paratriathlon guidelines for Super Sprint distance.

Athletes will begin the competition with a 200-meter pool swim (two-four laps), after which they will transfer to their wheelchair to transition to the handcycle race. Once there, athletes will transfer to their handcycles and take off for the 10K bike course. After an athlete has crossed the bike dismount line, he or she will transfer back into their wheelchair to travel to their race chair/gear to compete the final 2.5-mile run course.

Athletes are finished once the finish line is crossed in their race chair.

As exhibition events must take place twice at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games before they can be designated as medal events, coordinators will review the 2016 triathlon exhibition and make necessary improvements in advance of a second exhibition at the 37th Games in Cincinnati in 2017, MacDonald said.

It’s unclear how athletes will perform in the exhibition, MacDonald added, as most have competed in swimming, racing or handcycling but not necessarily all three or in a triathlon format. Army Veteran Holly Koester – the first person in a wheelchair to compete in marathons in all 50 states – is sure to stand out in the racing and handcycling portions, he said.

“This is Holly’s first triathlon ever,” he said. “Once she gets on the handcycle and push rim, she’s going to be like Moses separating the Red Sea. She’s a rocket.”

For information and rules on the Triathlon exhibition at the 36th NVWG, click here.

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.


Rowing Offered as Exhibition Event at 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Adaptive rowing at the 2015 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

NVWG rowing at White Rock Lake in Dallas, TX, on June 22, 2015. Photo by Rick Yeatts.

Navy veteran and amputee Dave Nelson Jr., always wanted to try adaptive rowing, thinking he likely had a natural ability for it.

So when the 35th National Veterans Wheelchair Games this week in Dallas featured rowing as an exhibition event, Nelson jumped on the opportunity. An avid handcycler, Nelson saw a natural fit.

“I thought rowing would be a good sport for me because I have the upper body strength for it,” he says. “I like the freedom on the water, and because I do handcycling, I like that I can get out on the water and go as fast as I can. I’ve been on rowing machines before, but this is the first time I’ve tried this. It’s definitely something I want to pursue more.”

About 70 veteran wheelchair athletes participated in this year’s rowing exhibition on White Rock Lake on June 22, 2015.

“We’ve wanted to do adaptive rowing for a long time, so to do it in conjunction with the Wheelchair Games has been amazing,” said Belinda McDonnell, president of Dallas United Crew (DUC), which sponsored the rowing exhibition for wheelchair athletes.

DUC member and experienced able-bodied rower Donna Swanson said adaptive rowing differs considerably from the able-bodied version, which in addition to arm movement requires pushing with the legs and upper and lower body.

“In adaptive rowing, everyone’s situation is unique,” Swanson said. “There’s no one piece of equipment that serves everyone’s needs, so we have several experts here to help veterans find the right fit so they can have the best experience.”

The rowing exhibition Monday featured leading coaches in adaptive rowing, including Debbie Arenberg, adaptive programs development specialist for U.S. Rowing, and Tom Darling, three-time Olympian and director of para-rowing for U.S. Paralympics.

For Michael Payne, a paralyzed Army veteran attending his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games, rowing is just one of many sports he’ll be trying out for the first time this week. He believes it’s important to keep active.

McDonnell said DUC’s goal is to build a community boathouse in Dallas that will serve diverse groups, including adaptive communities. The organization is currently working with VA therapists and Paralyzed Veterans in an effort to make the boathouse one of the best facilities for adaptive needs in the country, she said.

“It’s an honor to work toward that goal and serve our veterans,” McDonnell said. “It’s been phenomenal to do this today, but our goal is to do this every day for our veterans.”

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.