Adapting to Sports

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News January 2015

Paralyzed Veterans of America’s strong sports program provides vets and others with more than recreation and competition.

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Jimmy May was similar to thousands of others serving in the Vietnam War — an athletic, young man at the beginning of his life journey.

Then, Nov. 1, 1968, happened.

A piece of scrap metal was blown into his back, hitting his spinal cord. May became a paraplegic in a matter of seconds.

His ability to do everyday activities that most people take for granted — such as walking to the refrigerator to get a drink — was taken away.

The physical burden caused a mental toll that was difficult to handle. A support system of family and friends allowed May to adapt to having a normal life routine. However, it was Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) sports programs that provided May with an avenue to enjoy camaraderie with fellow veterans. The chance to compete and rekindle his competitive spirit, and most importantly, help others making a similar adjustment.

“I encourage a lot of the guys to get out and do things and don’t just sit around or lay around in a hospital,” says May, now sports director for PVA’s Mid-Atlantic Chapter. “I admit I was like that for six months. Then when I got out it changed my life when I started doing some things.”

Not Only Sports

PVA has 32 chapters across the nation. Many have their own sports programs that include local events as well as national tournaments.

Wheelchair basketball was offered at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Events include trap shooting, fishing, bowling, billiards and more. A majority of the events aren’t limited to veterans, but open to any person with a disability who wants to participate. The exception is the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), which is only open to former military service members.

Co-sponsored by PVA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the 35th edition of the Games are set for June 21–26 in Dallas. The event is expected to draw more than 500 participants ranging in age from their early-20s to late-80s. Some will have served in Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, while the organization’s most recent annual report listed having four World War II veterans compete.

“It’s not only a sports and recreation event,” PVA Sports Director Ernie Butler says. “It’s also a rehabilitation event through sports and recreation.”

A World Of Opportunity

The NVWG includes 19 sports broken down into dozens of events, such as varying distances of handcycling races.

Basketball, shooting and handcycling are some of the most commonly thought of sports that have been adapted for people with spinal-cord injury or disease (SCI/D). But recent equipment inventions have allowed participants to golf while standing.

The biathlon, which combines shooting with racing, will be added to this year’s Games. Also, lacrosse was an exhibition sport at last year’s NVWG.

“We’re just a microcosm of the rest of the country,” Butler says. “Sports and recreation in general have such a wide variety and people have such an array of interests. Fortunately, we’re in an era where there are a lot of adaptive sports opportunities.”

The organization works to adapt as many sports as possible, with numerous opportunities within the PVA sports programs designed to resemble a greater message to paralyzed veterans.

“The hope is that they learn they can do anything they want,” Butler says. “We want them to see there is a world of opportunity and the hope is that not only will they take that to heart with sports and recreation, but life in general.”

A Shared Desire

There’s no scientific formula for adapting a sport so it can be played by someone who’s paralyzed. Oftentimes, it takes one strong-willed person with a desire to create an opportunity.

“And a lot of trial and error,” Butler says. “But it’s probably one person that says, ‘I want to do this.’ Then you can develop it by finding other people that share that desire. I don’t think anybody sits down and says, ‘We need to look at developing lacrosse for wheelchairs.’”

Once somebody shows an interest in adapting a new sport, organizers will first look into any new equipment that needs to be created.

From there, possible rule changes to the sport are considered.

For example, in the current development of adapting lacrosse for paralyzed participants, organizers have decided they won’t use a ball that bounces.

“They have to play on a harder surface so the wheelchairs can move easily,” Butler says. “If the ball is bouncing around you would probably spend more time chasing the ball down the court than actually playing the game.”

But adapting a sport causes organizers to walk a fine line: making the game easier to play without changing its original appeal.

“We try to keep it as pure as the original sport as possible,” Butler says. “We want to make as few changes as possible so it’s not an entirely different sport because you’re in a wheelchair.”

The Driving Force

The NVWG are supported by numerous corporate and community sponsorships.

PVA has received grants in the past from U.S. Paralympics, a branch of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which were used to further develop handcycling, trapshooting, bowling and air pistol/rifle programs.

But the programs are fueled by something other than corporate donations and grants: people. They’re hoping all who have gone through a similar situation as the newly paralyzed veterans will participate in their programs.

“Most of our newly injured are young folks who are very active and very physical,” says Jim Russell, PVA national shooting sports director and member of the Cal-Diego chapter. “A great deal of them think their life is over and they turn to very destructive things, like booze or drugs. This is an excellent way to show them that their life isn’t over.”

Russell has a range set up at his home in California, which he regularly opens up to paralyzed veterans. He offers them 1-on-1 instructions for free; they can also use equipment for free. But most of all, they’re able to gain a sense of normalcy.

The chapter organizes air rifle and air pistol seminars, which allows participants to realize their ability to still shoot.

And there’s no lack of events to participate in — from air rifle and air pistol; high-power rifle and high-power pistol; and trap and shoot competitions.

“It’s great to see a guy who is an avid shooter, that loves to shoot but thinks he can’t shoot anymore — especially our quads whose hands don’t work,” Russell says. “But they can still shoot well. That really brings some joy back into their life and gives them some reason to get out of bed in the morning and get back out there in society and do things.”

The Mid-Atlantic chapter hosts several national tournaments, including bass fishing, bowling and trap shooting. There are more than 900 members in the region, with a majority helping with events at some point in the year.

A group of members recently held a car show in order to raise funds for the national tournaments the chapter holds, with those funds helping ease costs for participants, May says.

Chapters across the country are always looking for volunteers and participants. PVA has a search tool on its website,, that allows people to find chapters in their area.

Volunteers are also needed for the 2015 NVWG. Information on volunteering and for potential participants can be found online at


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