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People - Richard Lilien

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News September 2017

Richard “The Hammer” Lilien was hitting it extra hard at the gym earlier this year as he prepared for the competition of his life at May’s National Veterans Golden Age Games.

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Meet “The Hammer”

Richard “The Hammer” Lilien was hitting it extra hard at the gym earlier this year as he prepared for the competition of his life at May’s National Veterans Golden Age Games. The 90-year-old’s nickname didn’t come from his workout regiment, though. It came thanks to his impressive driving skills. 

“At 75, I could hit a golf ball farther than any of those youngsters at the golf course,” says Lilien, a World War II Army veteran. “They were so impressed, they started calling me ‘The Hammer,’ and it stuck.”

A quadriplegic after a fall four years ago, Lilien lives full-time in the spinal-cord injury center at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla. Earlier this year, Lilien and 21 other senior veterans from Tampa started training daily for the May 7-11 Games in Biloxi, Miss., but he encountered a problem. Lilien didn’t have the money he needed to take on this ultimate athletic challenge. Perseverance paid off. 

Aiming For Gold

The National Veterans Golden Age Games are the premier senior adaptive rehabilitation program in the United States. It’s the only national multi-event sports and recreational competition program designed to improve the quality of life for all older veterans, including those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. It includes 19 sports ranging from archery and golf to competitive swimming. More than 850 veteran athletes from more than 40 states participated in the 2017 Games, which are open to veterans age 55 or older who receive health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The goal is to encourage older vets to exhibit sportsmanship, dedication, leadership and an active lifestyle year-round.

“At Haley, we honor our veterans and their enormous efforts to constantly strive for ways to express their exceptional courage and desire to rise above and beyond,” says Kevin T. White, MD, chief of Haley’s Michael Bilirakis DVA Spinal Cord Injury Center.

The Games featured a health and wellness exposition offering the athletes a better experience. The exposition promoted the motto of “Fitness for Life” for senior veterans. Veterans received an interactive opportunity to sample various demonstrations, displays and products that can help them maintain active lifestyles. Lilien’s first competition was in 2016 in Detroit, where he won three medals. The VA paid for that initial trip, but veterans must pay for subsequent competitions. This year, he was seeking sponsors to defray the $2,600 cost for himself and his caregiver. 

With help from his Tampa team, Lilien set up a GoFundMe account one month before he departed for Biloxi. It was a success. He raised enough money and even had extra to help a few of the Tampa vets who were lacking funds. During the Games, Lilien competed in boccia, shuffleboard, bowling and air rifle. Proudly, he brought home gold in all four events.

“Winning gold is the dream for all these athletes, however, only a few will bring one back,” says Bernadette Hoffman, Haley recreational therapist and veterans’ coach. “But along the way, they will form new friendships, overcome personal obstacles and become mentally and physically stronger than they were before.”

Trip Of A Lifetime

A successful real estate executive from Naples, Fla., Lilien never imagined he would end up paralyzed and in a wheelchair.

“I took an accidental combination of a prescribed pain medication for a foot injury, along with my usual late-afternoon martini,” Lilien says. “It caused me to black out, fall on my head, and it broke my neck.”

Attending the Games at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi was a special added treat. Lilien was stationed there in 1944 and 1945. He also had a chance to visit the World War II museum in New Orleans.

“It was the trip of a lifetime,” says Lilien.

For more information on the National Veterans Golden Age Games, visit www.veteransgoldenagegames.va.gov.

Mike Merino works in the spinal-cord injury administrative office at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Fla.

 

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