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Teaming up in Tampa

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News October 2013

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games don't happen without thousands of volunteers coming together to help.

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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.

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“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.

The Fix

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.

 

“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.”

 

“I like to spend my days discovering the wonder, excitement, marvel and beauty of life,” he says.

 

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Teaming up in Tampa

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