Program Spotlight: 29th Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games
Over 500 of our nation's heroes competed in this 29th Annual event taking place this year in Spokane, Washington. The first of these events was held in San Antonio Texas in 1988 and has now evolved into a week-long celebration that offers a multitude of competitions and entertaining special events, including the team sporting events. These Games are presented each year by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) with a VA medical facility and PVA chapter collaborating to host this exciting event.
Any honorably discharged veterans who use a manual or motorized (power) wheelchair to compete in sports and are eligible for health care in the VA system can register to compete in the Games. The majority of participants have a spinal cord injury (including athletes with both paraplegia and quadriplegia) while other reasons for using a wheelchair to compete include lower extremity amputation (uni or bilateral), multiple sclerosis, stroke or other neurological disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, and more. While many of these athletes were injured while in service to their country (either in a war or other military service) many were injured as civilians such as in a motor vehicle or diving accident, a fall, or through illness. Most of the athletes use a wheelchair to ambulate all of the time, even when not playing sports, but not all. For example, some individuals with lower extremity amputation may walk with the use of prostheses, but to compete in sports a wheelchair is necessary.
Typically, more than 500 veterans compete in the Games every year with this year being no exception. Athletes come from virtually every state in the U.S., though the largest representation usually comes from California, Texas and New York. A team of wheelchair athletes from Puerto Rico has attended every year since 1986 and a team of guest competitors from Great Britain has also participated since 1987.
Organizers arrange the competition so that athletes compete by the level of their ability. There are seven different classifications for the athletes, from quadriplegics (classified as IA, IB or IC), to paraplegics and amputees (classified as II, III, IV, and V). The higher the classification number, the less severe the condition. In this way, for example, someone who has an amputation and has full upper body strength would not compete against an individual with high level quadriplegia. That way there is no advantage created. In addition, the athletes compete by the level of their experience, from "novice" (first timers) to "masters" (experienced athletes over the age of 40). Men and women also compete separately for most of the events. First timers make up nearly 25% of the competitors but there are many experienced wheelchair athletes who attend every year, some are, in fact, world class wheelchair athletes having already competed on a national and international level.
The Games are actually a partner of the U.S. Paralympics and see several of their athletes selected to represent the U.S. in the Paralympic Games every four years. Often, they return to serve as mentors to newly injured veterans.
There are now 17 different competitive sports, plus a variety of exhibition and demonstration sports that vary from year to year. This year they added a block party and golf clinic while the competitive sports included air guns, archery, basketball, bowling, field, handcycling, a motorized wheelchair rally, nine-ball, power soccer, quad rugby ("murderball"), slalom, softball, swimming, table tennis, track, trapshooting and weightlifting. Events for "stand up" athletes (such as amputees) include table tennis and archery.
Rules for wheelchair sports are essentially the same as their stand-up counterparts, with some adaptations made as needed for wheelchair use. Several sports offered at the Games are specifically for use with a wheelchair and there is no other non-adaptive version, such as the wheelchair slalom which is a challenging obstacle course. Handcycling, the motorized wheelchair rally and quad rugby are also geared toward wheelchair users, though have a similar counterpart for individuals without mobility limitations.
All competitive events are free and open to the public. For information about sponsorship, volunteer or other opportunities, or for general information, contact Paralyzed Veterans of America at 800-424-8200, ext. 705, or by visiting http://www.pva.org
We sent our NCHPAD video crew out to this year's Games in Spokane, Washington and they came back with exciting sport footage as well as informative and inspirational video interviews. The video clip featured here is a compilation of interviews of various competitors throughout the 29th Annual Games. Stay tuned in the following weeks for video clips featuring the sport competitions.