Kids Day Opens Adaptive Sports to Children with Disabilities

Kids Day at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.

Kids Day at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Salt Lake City.

Sixteen children with disabilities gathered at the Salt Palace Convention Center Thursday to be mentored by Veterans whose lives speak to the life-changing power of adaptive sports.

Kids Day – held as part of the 36th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Salt Lake City – is now in its 16th year. After being led in warm-up exercises, kids with varying types and levels of disability were cheered through the slalom – a challenging obstacle course for wheelchair athletes – t-ball and basketball.

“One of the things that happens at these types of events is people always talk about how Veterans inspire them, well, we get inspiration, too, when we see kids who are dealing with circumstances probably far greater than being disabled by the military because for them, it’s life-long,” said Sherman Gillums, Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America. “A lot of these kids are very sharp; they’ve been problem-solving for a long time. And if they take that into adulthood and into their career, they can do anything.”

For many children and parents, Kids Day was their first experience being around a large group of individuals in wheelchairs, let alone trying adaptive sports. The hope is that all young participants will return home equipped with enough knowledge and resources to pursue adaptive activities in their communities.

“It is amazing, truly amazing; this is the funnest thing he has done,” said Roger, father to Jacob. “You should have seen him out there, he had a blast going over all the jumps and doing all the obstacles. He had a blast.”

“It was awesome,” Jacob added.

Army Veteran Shaun Castle, now in his second year as a Kids Day mentor, said the experience naturally moved more personal in Salt Lake City, to the point where he was not only encouraging the children but motivating them to pursue activities beyond the one-hour NVWG event.

“Wheelchair basketball has taken me around the world to things I never dreamed, and it all started with trying wheelchair sports,” Castle said. “This year involved a deeper connection with the kids who may not have found that yet. Rather than just showing them how to shoot a basketball, I was able to speak to them about how it can change their life – that this moment could be one that changes their life forever.”

Kids Day is about more than giving disabled children an opportunity to see what’s possible; it’s also about inspiring Veteran athletes to take what they see and learn at the event and pay it forward in their own communities. Many Veterans tout Kids Day as their favorite event at the Games, evidenced by its popularity and long wait lists to fill around XX mentorship spots each year.

“These athletes, whether they’re novices or experts, have all been in much the same position as these kids, even though their injuries did not come until adulthood,” said Dr. Ken Lee, medical director for the NVWG, who returned to his iconic role as emcee for the Kids Day event. “The Veterans know how these kids feel and how the parents feel, and to relay what they have learned to both the child and the parents, I’m pretty sure that is even better than receiving a gold medal.”

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.

Eugene Tatom Exemplifies the Spirit of the Games

Vietnam Veteran Eugene Tatom

Eugene Tatom, 2015 Spirit of the Games award winner.

A year ago, Eugene Tatom from Philadelphia brought in the torch to kick off the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) held in the City of Brotherly Love. This year, he ended the 35th annual NVWG in Dallas by letting his own light shine as he was named the Spirit of the Games award winner.

Fellow athletes know if you run into him, you may be talking a while — and they don’t mind. He’s a favorite among his peers. Eugene said he sees his gift of gab as a benefit, along with his ingrained competitiveness. He combines those two traits in his roles as a longtime mentor, coach, and encourager of kids and young Veterans.

”Eugene serves as an excellent mentor to new athletes and is quick to provide suggestions, encouragement, and coaching,” said his coach with the Philly Phever, Julia Fries. ”His years of sports experience have given him a keen understanding of strategy, and he is an excellent coach as well as participant.”

Tatom is a mainstay of the NVWG’s mentoring program at Kids Day, which started in 2001 in New York City. Founder of the NVWG and current Games’ consultant Tom Brown says Eugene “has a special love for children with disabilities and spends much of the time mentoring and teaching them wheelchair skills, which will stay with them the rest of their lives.”

“Even if I can’t compete anymore, I’ll still come back for Kids Day,” the 72-year-old Tatom said. “I encourage the kids to get involved in programs in their neighborhood. If they don’t know what programs are available, I give them my number and tell them to call me and I’ll help them find something. Adaptive sports are so important to their long-term health both physically and emotionally.”

He offers the same message to newly injured vets that come into the Philadelphia VA Medical Center. “I tell them that it’s important for them to get involved,” he said. “And I tell them about the Games. This has been my lifeline for a long time and I let them know it can be a lifeline for them, too. I say, ‘We have a team. Julia Fries is our coach. We have fun. Do you like to travel? Do you like to see new cities? Do you like sports? You should join us.’ ”

He stresses that he gives that same message to the men and women who come into the VA. “Sometimes that’s all they need,” he said. “Sometimes they’re not ready. Sometimes they say they’re too busy, and I say, ‘Well when you unbusy, give me a call.'”

He loves being around young people and says that doing so keeps him young. He talks to them about the various programs available to them and tells them how to prepare for and how to play the various adaptive sports. “I tell them to go home and practice and to be sure to ask for a sports chair.”

Eugene has been getting people involved with the Games and adaptive sports in general for a long time. He was a young corporal in the Marine Corps in 1969 when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam. “I’m lucky just to be here,” he said. That same year, he saw wheelchair basketball for the first time and thought, “Are they crazy?” But he said he started working hard to learn the game and train, spending two years on the bench watching. Finally, down a point with 15 seconds left, his coach put him in, and Eugene hit the game-winner. He was hooked.

Many long-time NVWG Veterans know Eugene as a basketball player, but he said he didn’t play basketball growing up. His main passion was swimming, and that has never waned. “He goes to his local pool throughout the week to train, and is usually there at 6 a.m. doing laps,” Fries said. In his youth he also enjoyed fencing and rowing, so he was happy that both were exhibited in this year’s Games and he hopes that both become permanent parts of the NVWG.

As for his long history of attending the Games, Eugene said that “just being here” is his favorite aspect of the annual event. “This is like a family,” he said. “I look forward to seeing people I’ve known for years. I look forward to seeing new people. And of course I love Kids Day. It’s just comfortable here. It’s fun. I have a great time.”

With his wife, Alberta Scott-Tatom, by his side, he said that his NVWG family feels like an extension of his own, one with five sons. He said his family has always been supportive of his commitment to adaptive sports, the NVWG, and helping others.

“Eugene Tatom, fondly known as ‘Tatom’ to most, epitomizes the Spirit of the Games,” Fries said. “For years, he has been active in various sports teams and events, and participates regularly in local basketball leagues, road races, and the NVWG Philly Phever team. Tatom’s ongoing determination, positivity, and self- discipline make him ideal to receive the Spirit of the Games.”

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.