Teaming up in Tampa
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games don't happen without thousands of volunteers coming together to help.
With almost 600 participants, the 33rd annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in Tampa, Fla., was a huge endeavor, but athletes were only part of the Games. There are also thousands of people making sure the Games run smoothly.
Presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), and hosted by Florida Gulf Coast PVA, the Games benefit from thousands of tireless volunteers, locally and from around the country, to help participants enjoy the event.
“We had about 3,400 volunteers,” says Jeanene LeSure, recreational therapist at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. She was the VA host coordinator for the Games this year. “About 3,100 registered.”
The other 300 volunteers just sort of showed up from out of nowhere.
“During the week of the Games, we had a lot of people who came out and signed up on the spot, and we gave them something to do,” LeSure remarks.
One Big Blur
She says that when the Games were happening, July 13-18, everything became a blur for her.
“Every day I was up at 5 a.m.,” LeSure offers. “I was not in bed until the last event was done, 10, 11 o’clock at night.”
No matter how well planned things are with an event like NVWG, the complexity and size of things invites Murphy’s law. When those problems flared up, it was LeSure who became the Games’ “firefighter.”
“It was go, go, go until the closing ceremonies,” she says.
NVWG veteran Mike Savicki was selected Spirit of the Games Award winner for the 2013 event.
This was LeSure’s sixth Games. She normally coaches basketball teams.
“Even going as a coach you have obstacles, but you don’t even get a glimpse of what it’s like to host it, to be in the thick of it,” she offers.
Being in the “thick of it” is never a problem when it comes to making sure all the participants’ wheelchairs are working well.
Mary Carol Peterson, marketing manager for Invacare Top End’s sports division, has been to a lot of Wheelchair Games. She won’t say exactly how many, but noted that Invacare has been at NVWG since the very first one in 1981.
“We’ve been at the Games for 33 years,” she says. “That entails months of planning.”
Invacare assembles, maintains and repairs wheelchairs and other equipment at the Games. The job starts at the airport as athletes arrive and also ends there when they leave. Typically, Invacare has about 20 support and repair folks on hand at the Wheelchair Games.
“We send that team to meet the (athletes), so we can prevent damage to the wheelchairs as they’re unloaded from the planes,” Peterson says. “We do the same thing to get the veterans on the planes.”
In between landings and takeoffs, the Invacare teams stay busy, Peterson says. This year she ordered about $10,000 worth of equipment to be ready for the most common, and the oddest, wheelchair and equipment problems. Oh, that’s $10,000 wholesale by the way. “The retail value would probably be close to $30,000,” Peterson adds.
One of the most common problems power wheelchairs have at the Games is the very human penchant to forget things.
“We order in a lot of batteries and battery chargers,” says Peterson. “They don’t always bring their chargers.”
While not needing to worry about electrical power, manual wheelchairs require plenty of attention, too, during the Games.
“We replace tires, tubes, bearings, spokes, sometimes whole wheels,” Peterson explains. “A lot of tubes, a lot of tires. People tend to lose their straps, too.”
But some of the events are tougher on wheelchairs than others. “Axels, oh my gosh, axels for basketball and rugby,” Peterson says.
As tough as NVWG can be on wheelchairs, it can be just as hard on volunteers. But, even though the days can be long, volunteers have a firm understanding of why they’re there and enjoy every minute of it.
A Great Experience
White-shirted volunteers are everywhere at the Games and no matter where they come from, they’re all there for the veterans.
“We have an affinity for veterans and had the ability to contribute,” says Charlie Brown, who volunteered with his wife, Connie. “After seeing this posted as a volunteer opportunity, this seemed like a great way to get involved.”
Living in Tampa, both of their fathers were in the military and are shooters. So it worked out well when they were assigned to work the air guns competition.
“It’s been a great experience to see this up close,” Brown says.
Veterans also see NVWG as a great event and a good way to give back to fellow veterans. Marine Corps vet Jeff Cotten, from nearby Brandon, Fla., worked roughly 17 hours on the first day of the Games and called the opening ceremonies “incredible.”
Cotten says he is impressed by the athleticism and determination at NVWG, but understands there is more than getting a medal.
“They are more athletic than I was in my prime,” Cotten says. “They all want to win, but they all want to help each other, too.”
Cotten says he’s already looking for hotels for next year’s event in Philadelphia. “I can’t wait to do it again,” he says.
What is Brown Doing For Vets?
Beside white shirts, brown shirts are another longtime sight at the Wheelchair Games. Lots of brown shirts.
UPS has been a part of the Games since 1986. Indeed, the man responsible for that, Siro DeGasperis, is a Games legend. After retiring from UPS, he founded the DeGasperis Family Foundation to continue supporting the Wheelchair Games.
Among UPS’s 300 or so volunteers in Tampa was Jim Strong, an industrial engineer for the company in Orlando, Fla. It was his first time at NVWG.
“I helped with the quad rugby,” he says. “I want to play quad rugby now. That looked like so much fun.”
While Strong was a first-time Games volunteer, he knows a lot about adaptive sports and recreation. A longtime buddy of his, Ken Weas, is one of PVA’s national vice presidents.
“I’ve known Ken for, gosh, almost 20 years now,” Strong says. “We met at church. I’ve done some hunting trips with Ken. We’ve grown our friendships through common interests.”
Strong remarks that watching wheelchair basketball and rugby players makes it hard for anyone to see wheelchair users with any pity.
“I told Ken I’d like to do more [Wheelchair Games],” he remarks. “It was so much fun.”
For National Veterans Wheelchair Games results, more photos and video, visit pvamag.com/sns or pva.org.
Writer Tim W. Jackson from Asheville, N.C., also contributed to this article.
The Doctor is In
Making sure the almost 600 participants in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) have a good experience takes thousands of volunteers; helping those vets stay healthy during the event takes Ken Lee, MD, and his team.
Lee has been a physician at the Games since 1997, missing just two years. The Army veteran says he’s enjoying his role as medical director of this year’s NVWG and that his team in Tampa, Fla., is just one piece of a large organization.
“The medical aspect begins early on,” Lee says. “All the athletes need to be cleared by their own physicians. If there is a question, then it’s something I can examine.”
Lee leads more than 100 doctors and nurses during the Games. The staff has seven physicians from all over the country, who are “all strong in sports medicine,” Lee says. In addition, there are about 100 nurses from the VA system in the Tampa area.
Critically wounded by a suicide bomber while serving in Baghdad, the head of the Milwaukee VA Spinal Cord Injury Center intimately understands the issues experienced by the NVWG athletes.
“Travel isn’t easy for these folks,” he says. “Their room is not their home. Their bed is different. Their food is different. It can cause problems.”
More Fun Than Bed
It’s understandable that some people might need to slow their life down a bit after sustaining a spinal-cord injury, but it seems Navy veteran Mike Savicki’s life actually got faster.
Whether he is participating in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), mentoring other athletes, starting his own business, earning an MBA or completing a marathon, it’s safe to say Savicki leads a busy and full life.
Savicki can now add the Spirit of the Games Award to his accomplishments. He was presented with the honor at July’s 33rd Games in Tampa, Fla. Earning the honor in his 22nd appearance at the Games seems a little ironic since it was at that age when his life changed.
Savicki was 22 and training to become a Navy F-14 pilot when he dove into the waters off Pensacola Beach, Fla., and suffered a C6 spinal-cord injury resulting in quadriplegia.
A standout high school and college athlete, Savicki says he turned to sports as part of rehabilitation. Following eight months of rehab, Savicki entered his first NVWG in Miami.
“Sports were more fun than staying in bed feeling sorry for myself,” he writes on his website.
Since his injury, Savicki has received an MBA from Duke University, completed the Boston Marathon several times, founded his own business (Scratching Post Solutions), and won the 2011 Distinguished Achievement Award from Tufts University.
“I like to spend my days discovering the wonder, excitement, marvel and beauty of life,” he says.
Teaming up in Tampa
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