A Pool of Inspiration
Swimmer Wayne Field overcame the odds and influences others at the National Veterans Golden Age Games.
From a harrowing experience in World War II to learning to swim with a disability to becoming a champion in the pool, it’s been a tough and rewarding road for Wayne Field.
A World War II Army veteran, Field started swimming 31 years ago. Today, the 86-year-old has won more than 200 medals in the National Veterans Golden Age Games and the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). The Colorado Springs resident has even appeared on a Cheerios box.
What’s Really Amazing
While this Purple Heart recipient’s athletic ability and accomplishments are outstanding, what is really amazing is that he has achieved these feats with no feeling below his knees.
Shortly after the Battle of the Bulge, Field’s platoon was shelled, knocking him unconscious. His legs froze in the snow, resulting in peripheral neuropathy in both extremities.
After the war he walked with forearm crutches for many years before finally requiring use of a wheelchair. His wife, Marie, believes swimming is one of the main reasons he still has both legs.
Wayne Field prepares to swim at the 26th National Veterans Golden Age Games.
Despite various challenges, Field has used a “can do” attitude and a lot of hard work to win medals and inspire others. Earlier this year, he was back competing and encouraging others during the National Veterans Golden Age Games in St. Louis.
Getting shelled wasn’t the only tight spot Field found himself in during World War II. He served with the 6th Armored Division in Germany, often leading younger soldiers on reconnaissance missions.
“I had two other guys with me, and we were leading the reconnaissance column,” recalls Field. “One of the vehicles behind us fired ahead to alert us to turn, and I missed the warning shot.”
Consequently he and his fellow soldiers wound up in a small village that was occupied by Nazis.
They quickly abandoned their Jeep and looked for a place to hide, ending up in the basement of a German civilian who
let them hide under the stairs. For the next several days, Field waited for an opportunity to escape, all the while being protected by the German.
“I didn’t even get to find out his name,” Field says. “I learned then the difference between a Nazi and a German civilian.”
Finally Field and his fellow soldiers made a break for it. They made a right turn at the first road and almost immediately found their Jeep, which thankfully was not booby-trapped.
“I had a guide,” he says, quietly speaking of his faith in God.
And he never forgot his German protector.
Almost six decades later Field returned to Germany to the little village of Hessich-Lichtenau to try to find the German who literally saved his life.
“I never knew what happened to him,” he says. “I wanted to find that house, a relative, a grandchild, someone.” But he never did.
Age Doesn’t Matter
Field, who speeds around the sport competition venues in a motorized wheelchair, laughs about the 80–84-year-old age group as he gets ready to compete.
“They’re just kids!” he quips.
Then he adds, “Age doesn’t make any difference. It’s all about physical condition.”
When Field started swimming more than three decades ago, he was out of shape but still able to walk with forearm crutches. He tells everyone he can that it’s easier to stay in shape than it is to try to get back into shape.
Maybe that’s why he’s so determined to keep swimming even when each stroke is painful. In addition to his peripheral neuropathy, he has also overcome rotator cuff surgery in one shoulder and ligament surgery in the other.
To compensate for his legs in the water, he has to often adjust his arm strokes to power through to the finish. Field follows a strict practice regimen swimming three days a week and doing water aerobics on his off days.
“Whoever I beat, it’s probably not because I’m better than him,” he says, “it’s because I practice more.”
No Better Tutor
Field’s coach, VA Recreation Therapist Adeline Velasquez, has known him for 12 years. She keeps in touch with him every week to check that he is doing OK in his training, while making sure to respect his determination to remain independent.
“He has gained independence through his therapies,” Velasquez says, “It’s an inspiration to see him progressing even as he ages.”
Velasquez allows her athlete to train the way he wants to.
“Our goal is to break down any barriers to his success,” she explains. “He knows his body better than anyone else.”
Velasquez also knows Field is a role model to her team of 19 athletes from the VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System.
“He’s been through so much, and he sees his physical limitations as just a minimal hurdle,” says Velasquez.
This year Velasquez had two new swimmers on her team. She told them about Field and his athletic accomplishments, and they wanted to meet him to get pointers.
Then she told them he was not able to walk, and they couldn’t fathom his athletic ability. So they met him, and now they’ve watched him power through the water at the Golden Age Games in St. Louis.
As the crowd cheered Field on, Velasquez simply asked, “What better tutor could you have than someone who’s been swimming for so many years and is in a power wheelchair?”
For more information on the National Veterans Golden Age Games, visit www.veteransgoldenagegames.va.gov.
A Pool of Inspiration
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