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Paying It Forward
Christopher Di Virgilio

Meeting the 2017 S`NS Junior Athlete of the Year


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Living Without Limits

Reprinted from SNS September 2017

Wheelchair athletes had lots of meaningful experiences at the 2017 National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Each athlete’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) experience is unique. 

Some are buoyed by their athletic accomplishments, hitting levels they didn’t know they could reach. For others, they’re ignited by bonding and developing a camaraderie with fellow veterans in the same situation as them. And for others, they’re energized and taken aback by the way the Games help bring their families together. 

Veterans shared in those moments at this year’s 37th Games, co-sponsored by Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in Cincinnati. More than 550 athletes competed in 19 sports at the July 17-22 Games, and here’s just a snapshot of some of the highlights.

Family Fun

When BookerT Foster struggled with his first-half shooting touch, a family member offered Dad a little advice. And it propelled his Team Gold wheelchair basketball team to a gold medal at the NVWG. Foster found his scoring groove in the second half to lead Team Gold to a 39-29 victory over the Green Team in the July 22 wheelchair basketball championship game at the Duke Energy Convention Center.

Foster’s 19-year-old son, Tyus, noticed his dad’s shots seemed a bit short. So the former high school basketball player reminded his father what to do. 

“Now he gets his chance to get on his dad,” says Foster, an Army veteran who was a driver and worked in the arms room until he sustained a T12 spinal-cord injury (SCI) after a Humvee ran over him in 1992 in Fort Hood, Texas. “Oh yeah, he did. He told me what I needed to do during halftime ‘cause we were losing. He said that I was missing my jumpshots. They were shorter. So, he said I need to put some arch on it. And it worked.”

That wasn’t Foster’s only shining moment, though.  

Besides winning the gold, the PVA Mid-Atlantic Chapter member and Fayetteville, N.C., resident also met legendary former NBA player and two-time Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Oscar Robertson. A University of Cincinnati alumnus, Robertson, who played for the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks, is one of only two players to average a triple-double for a season — doing so in 1961-62 for the Royals (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists a game).

Robertson made a surprise appearance, was honored before the championship and helped tip-off the final game. He posed for photos and talked with athletes afterward, including with Foster, who shook Robertson’s hand, had him meet his two sons — Tyus and hopefully-to-be-adopted 1-year-old Dray — and took a photo with them. 

“It was great,” says Foster, who also competed in bowling and earned a silver medal in softball. “It was an honor.” 

 


Kind Of Therapeutic

Mike Raphael found people just like him at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

After attending the 2016 NVWG in Salt Lake City, the 30-year-old Navy veteran had finally found a big group of veterans who enjoy athletic activities, pushing themselves and who are all trying to figure out life in a wheelchair. That’s why he came back for 2017 in Cincinnati. 

But the Ashland, Wis., resident also realized how much he loves competing in sports, including weightlifting, softball and especially wheelchair basketball. 

“I’m moving,” says Raphael, who served in active duty from 2007-2011 as a mechanic and active reserve from 2011-13 as a utilityman with the Seabees before sustaining a T3 SCI after a gunshot wound in July 2015 in North Dakota. “There’s lots of communication involved. There’s a lot of animosity, and I think it’s kind of therapeutic just to yell like that. I did a lot of that in my old job. I worked in an oil field when I got hurt and I was a supervisor. And you’ve got to do a lot of yelling in that because it’s dangerous and you’ve got to get the new guys’ attention. And I yelled a lot when I was in the Navy. That’s kind of my thing.”

This year, Raphael has focused on improving himself. Back in January, the PVA Minnesota Chapter member was at his heaviest — 285 pounds — since his injury, and he decided to make a change. He also built himself a PVC pipe contraption, putting some rivets in an old metal ironing board and some straps on it, so he could strap his legs and chest in it to do pushups at home. 

By the time he’d arrived at the NVWG, he had dropped down to 259 pounds. 

“I was in a 2XL shirt and I looked at it and I was like, ‘Man, I either need to start ordering bigger shirts, which is a bad idea ‘cause then it’d make it easier to order a 4X shirt,’ so I just started going to the gym,” Raphael says. “It’s not very accessible, but I knew there was some exercise.”

Spirit Of The Games

After finding out she’d won the 2017 NVWG Spirit of the Games award, Ardrena Bailey put her hand over her mouth. Shock came over her with her picture on the big screen at the Duke Energy Convention Center Grand Ballroom in Cincinnati. 

“I don’t know what to say. I’m so shocked. I’m so grateful. I’m eternally grateful and I just want to thank everybody for their support and this special night,” says Bailey, an Army veteran. “I’m just so honored, many years. I’m just so grateful for everyone.  And I look forward to coming here every year and [for] everyone’s support. I’m just truly shocked and I’m just so grateful. I just don’t know what to say. Thank you, everybody.”

A PVA member, Bailey began competing in the NVWG in 1997 after a multiple sclerosis (MS) diagnosis, but she didn’t let that slow her enthusiasm. This year, Bailey competed in three events and finished as a double gold-medal winner in senior Class 3 ramp bowling (350 pin total) and discus (7.43 meters). 

Invacare Corporation’s National Account Manager to the VA Stuart Cohen presented Bailey with the award, describing a moment that led to her being named the award winner. 

“Even during this year’s Games after earning gold in bowling and discus, she competed in boccia. She did not place but as soon as she got off the court, she turned to her coach and said she was going to go out and immediately get a new set and get better,” Cohen says. “It is that drive and persistence that led her coach, Colleen, to nominate her.”

Honoring Tom Brown

Although he helped start the NVWG 37 years ago, Tom Brown has never thought of himself as the founder. He’s considered himself their caregiver. And now he’s handing off that torch.

During the NVWG’s closing ceremony in the Grand Ballroom of the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, Brown was presented with two awards, one each from the VA and from PVA — the two co-sponsors of the Games. He received the secretary’s award from the VA honoring his leadership and a crystal from PVA thanking him for his service. 

He’s survived a heart attack, a quadruple bypass surgery and two strokes this past year, but throughout the 37 years, he’s only missed one site visit and no Games. 

“I’ve always kind of tried to stay in the background cause the spotlight is on you guys, you veterans, and always has been and always should be,” says Brown. 

Together, three Department of Veterans Affairs recreation therapists — Wally Lynch, director of recreation therapy at the VA Central Office; Muriel Barber, chief of recreation therapy at Hunter Holmes VA Hospital in Richmond, Va.; and Brown, a recreation therapist at the Hunter Holmes VA Hospital in Richmond — came up with the Games. The first Games began in 1981 at the McGuire VA Hospital in Richmond and totaled 74 veteran wheelchair athletes from 14 states competing in track and field, obstacle course, billiards and swimming. Today, there are more than 550 veteran wheelchair athletes competing in more than 19 sports from each of the 48 states, Washington D.C., Puerto Rico and Great Britain.  

Paralyzed Veterans of America’s Ernie Butler will take over as National Veterans Wheelchair Games director, serving as a liaison between the national VA, VA local organizing committee, PVA national and PVA host chapter on Games logistics, just as Brown did. Butler acknowledged Brown played a major part in keeping them running so smoothly and hopes he’ll come close to
the task. 

“Tom has created a lasting legacy that very few people on this earth ever have the opportunity to do, a legacy of giving and caring. And Tom, you may be stepping down from your day-to-day role, but this legacy will last forever,” Butler says. “I can never fill Tom Brown’s shoes in taking over, but neither can Tom. But I can and I will do everything I can do to protect your legacy and these Games.”

Finally Cracking The Title

It took him nearly a decade and a half, but Enrique Lopez finally won the advanced obstacle course called “Super G” at the NVWG. A Navy veteran and Chicago resident, Lopez finished in 3 minutes, 45 seconds to capture the“Super G” crown at the Duke Energy Convention Center. He acknowledged the hardest parts are the ramps, but over the years one learns tricks to overcome the obstacles. 

“It’s just your speed, your agility, your strength,” says Lopez, a 47-year-old with an L2 injury who is in his 17th year competing at the Games. He was paralyzed after back surgery at the Miami VA Healthcare System in 1998. “The most important part of slalom [obstacle course] is you have to learn to do a wheelie and balance on your wheels. That’s the key.”

A PVA Vaughan Chapter member, Lopez qualified for the “Super G” after placing second in regular obstacle course, or “slalom,” in the Master Class division in 3:06.51. The top three finishers in each class advance to the “Super G” event.

For more photos, results and videos of NVWG events, visit sportsnspokes.com and wheelchairgames.org/about/results.

 

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