The 34th Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games

This weekend, I had the great honor and the tremendous fortune not only to attend, but also to volunteer at the 34th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Philadelphia hosted the games this year, which ran for 5 days from August 12th to the 17th. More than 500 athletes compete yearly in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, making it the largest wheelchair sporting event in the world. There are 17 sports, including basketball, rugby, swimming, weight lifting, and softball. While some of the athletes are seasoned, it is also an opportunity for those who are newer to competition to participate. All of the athletes have varying backgrounds and levels of capability including quadriplegics, paraplegics, and amputees. I think it is pertinent and just plain interesting to give a brief history of the event. Wheelchair sports became popular after World War II when young veterans at VA hospitals across the United States started to play wheelchair basketball. In 1980, the VA established Recreational Therapy services, and a year later came the 1st annual NVWG in Richmond, Virginia.  In that first year, 74 vets competed. Shortly after in 1985, the Paralyzed Veterans of America offered to co-sponsor the event with the VA and also offered to recruit corporate sponsors because the event was rapidly increasing in size and popularity. By 1985, there were 280 athletes partaking in the games. Two years later in 1987, 12 British military veterans were invited to participate in the NVWG alongside American vets. Since then, Great Britain has participated every year. I worked specifically at the swimming competition, which took place on August 16th at the Kroc Center on Wissahickon Ave in North Philadelphia. I was not even aware the Kroc Center existed until the Saturday of the competition, when I showed up with my bright orange volunteer shirt. It is an entity of the Salvation Army (which was born in Philadelphia, as a matter of fact), and a remarkably generous gift from Joan Kroc, wife of Ray Kroc—the McDonald’s founder. According to the Salvation Army website, at 130,000 square feet, it is the “newest, largest, most comprehensive community center on the east coast.” And they certainly do have bragging rights because it is the most beautiful community and recreational center I have ever seen. What makes it even more wonderful is the fact that it has been built in a severely underserved part of city. It is nestled in the North Philadelphia industrial landscape, some of which is still in use and some of which is quite blighted. The building is so gorgeous and so salubrious with its modern curvature and its sleek, glistening glass and steel walls through which natural light merrily floods. As a first-time volunteer and spectator of the games, the swimming competition was, for me, an incredible, emotional, almost overwhelming experience.  It seemed to me that everyone’s spirits ran high. There was so much encouragement and positivity. The air was heavy with humidity and thick with cheers and laughter. There was a deep and visible camaraderie that seemed to form amongst the athletes. One of the first things that struck me when the athletes started to roll in was the diversity amongst them. They were older, middle-aged, and very young. They were men and women. They were black, white, Latino, and Asian. They were quadriplegics, paraplegics, amputees, all with varying levels of capabilities. And they were all under this one roof, sitting in groups, catching up or getting to know each other, sharing their experiences as veterans, as athletes, as human beings. Some swimmers were extremely agile and fast.  Others moved at a much slower pace, but swam so steadily that the entire room couldn’t help but scream and cheer as they pushed themselves to finish the race.  One woman finished last place in the 50 meter backstroke, but as everyone cheered mightily for her, you could see her face beaming with pride and joy. After she was lifted out of the pool and back into her chair, she laughed, “I guess I finished last, huh?” to which a volunteer responded emphatically, “But you finished!” I personally became particularly overwhelmed when seeing younger vets competing. One gentleman could not have been older than thirty, with a beard and long hair pulled messily back into a pony tail.  On his forearm he had tattooed the details of his tour in Afghanistan, and under it was written “Purple Heart.” I deduced that meant he was injured in Afghanistan and possibly confined to the wheelchair because of injuries he sustained.  In spite of all the heartache he must have endured, he was in Philadelphia, competing in a huge sporting event. There are so many physical and psychological wounds sustained in war to which so many service members might easily succumb. These vets have found the strength and ability to overcome. It is awe-inspiring and humbling to witness.  When I think about the trials and troubles I will face in my day-to-day, I just need to remember these extraordinary service members who sacrificed for their country and then came out with the boldness and bravery to compete in this huge athletic event. The National Veterans Wheelchair Games have been hosted all across the nation from Wisconsin and Texas to Puerto Rico and  Alaska. Next year, the 35th annual NVWG will be held in Dallas, TX from June 21-26th. All events are FREE and open to the public!  That’s another fantastic thing about them!  If you can, go support the athletes next year! The National Veterans Wheelchair Games is not the only event that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sponsors.  There are several others throughout the year, most of which take place during the end of the summer into the fall.  The two that caught my eye were the Warrior Games and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. The Warrior Games are compromised of 200 wounded, ill or injured service members and veterans, each representing 1 of 5 different teams—Army, Marine Corps, Navy/Coast Guard, Air Force, and Spec Ops.  There are 7 sports including archery, cycling, shooting, sitting-volleyball, swimming, track & field, and wheelchair basketball.  These 5 teams compete against each other.  All events are free and open to the public.  This year, the 2014 Warrior Games are being hosted in Colorado Springs, CO from September 24 – October 4.  If you are in the area or plan on being in the area, go support them and also enjoy a competitive athletic event. The National Veterans Creative Arts Festival is another annual event hosted by the VA.  About 120 veterans participate, and enter creative pieces including painting, photography, creative writing, dance, and music. It is a festival that recognizes and honors progress and recovery.  If you are a veteran and are interested in submitting work for next year’s event, you can go to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival website to check out submission guidelines.  This year, the festival is being hosted in Milwaukee, WI from October 27-November 2, 2014.  The events that are open to the public take place on November 2; the art exhibit is from 12:00pm to 1:45pm, and the stage show begins at 2:00pm at the Milwaukee Theater.  Again, if you’re in that general area and want to support the festival, please attend!  I can only imagine how powerful it will be. Thank you to all veterans and service members and thank you to the NVWG for hosting such a remarkable event.  It was truly moving and also fun.

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