Struttin' Their Stuff

At the 21st National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Red Team's Jody Shiflett tries to knock the ball away from Black Team's John Marti in the championship game.
Reprinted from PN September 2001

A spirit of fellowship surrounded athletes in every sport of the 21st National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

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New York City is known for its gritty basketball courts, where the name of the game is keeping up with players who take to the hoop in a style all their own. On July 2, in the heart of Times Square, National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) basketball team members demonstrated their own style of roundball. This public kick-off of the Games delighted hundreds of onlookers.

In fact, the 500+ athletes excited spectators in every event of this 21st NVWG, presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and held July 1?5 in "The Big Apple."

Luis Pinela holds his own in the 100m freestyle.
This year's competitors selected up to five events from air guns, archery, basketball, bowling, field, 5k road race, motorized rally, 9-ball, quad rugby, slalom, softball, swimming, table tennis, track, and weightlifting.

In addition, a sled hockey exhibition illustrated how this exciting new sport tests athletes' skills. A "Super G" slalom was another exhibition event.

NVWG Honorary Chairperson Bo Derek, an actress well-known for her role in the 1979 movie 10, handed out medals and encouragement. She is active in Habitat for Humanity and, along with actor Jeff Bridges, co-chairs Hunger Free America, an organization dedicated to eradicating hunger in the United States.

"Life is not a spectator sport," says Laura Schwanger, 42, from Wiliamstown, N.J. She won this year's Spirit of the Games Award, sponsored by Invacare Corporation.

Schwanger was an E-4 weather observer in the U.S. Army in 1982 when she was medically discharged due to multiple sclerosis (MS). For two years, she "just existed," adjusting to life in a wheelchair only nine months after diagnosis.

"I don't remember a lot of high points about those years," she says. "I read a lot, went out to the pool, and got a really good tan."

That was about it until 1985, when a friend took Schwanger to watch the Boston Marathon. She sat by the finish line and looked with awe as the first 12 competitors, all in wheelchairs, finished.

"We can go home now," she told her friend. "This is what I'm going to do."

Before entering the Army in 1979, Schwanger enjoyed basketball, softball, tennis, and track. She clearly missed the thrill of competition.

After her Boston inspiration, Schwanger researched what was available and began swimming. She later found her niche in track and field.

In 1987, she participated in her first NVWG, in Ann Arbor, Mich. She was one of only nine or ten women competing at that time. She is pleased to see more women in the Games every year.

Over the years, Schwanger has been in numerous national and international events, including three Paralympic GamesSeoul, Korea; Barcelona, Spain; and Atlanta. She says selection as Dodge Corporation's 1990 Amateur Athlete of the Year, being named 1990 Female Wheelchair Athlete of the Year, and participation in the Paralympics are her greatest sports achievements.

Schwanger is also proud of her work with youths with disabilities. She has coached a junior wheelchair-sports team in the Philadelphia area.

"I try to show them how it's done, and then they say, 'Hey, let me try that!' I think that is the greatest impact I have had," she says.

"Sports is what really turned me around," she explains. "It gave me direction and options and showed me I can still be a whole personeven if only half of my body is working."

Following military service, Schwanger earned a degree in political science. She currently is working on a graduate degree in counseling psychology. She works at the Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (EPVA), where she heads the Philadelphia regional office. In her spare time, she enjoys golf, kayaking, handcycling, and reading.

"Some doors closed because of my disability," Schwanger says, "but others opened. You need to find what you are good at, what you like to dothen just go out there and do it. Don't be a spectator, be a part of it! Don't just sit there and let life pass you by!"

The 22nd National Veterans Wheelchair Games will take place in Cleveland on July 9-13, 2002.

Contributing writers: John Mazzulla, Lina DeBor, Jenny Tankersley, and Stuart Salembier.


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