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Eyes Wide Open

Reprinted from SNS September 2018

The 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games left athletes stunned, amazed and spirit-filled throughout the weeklong event

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) are always full of hope, camaraderie and competition, but this year’s event in Orlando, Fla., also provided plenty of interesting twists and turns, some even literally.

There was a daunting course and rule changes in the big obstacle course called “Super G.” Then, there were those aforementioned literal twists and turns in the tougher-than-expected handcycling portion of the inaugural NVWG team relay. There were also some surprise celebrity visitors, including an iconic NFL quarterback.

Of course, that was only a small portion of what took place during the 38th annual event co-sponsored by Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs. With more than 600 participants from across the country, Great Britain and Puerto Rico gathered in central Florida July 30–Aug. 4, there were plenty of stories about triumph, adversity, friendship and joy to be told.

Crazy Experience

Letoi Adams thought her NVWG experience was headed downhill.  

Just five minutes before the opening ceremonies ended inside the Orange County Convention Center, the Army veteran laid back in her wheelchair a little bit and the back of it snapped apart. 

So what’d she do?

Oh, just somehow got herself out of a depressed mindset, borrowed a loaner wheelchair and then won gold medals in four events — the obstacle course called “slalom,” shot put, discus and javelin. 

The first day was the toughest. Adams, who developed cancer on her spine in 2011 and is a T10 incomplete paraplegic, spent that day in only her sports wheelchair, which made life difficult, especially since it couldn’t get through any doors. That’s when PVA Long Beach Chapter Vice President Jemal Williams stepped
up and offered
to help. 

“I was damn near depressed all over. I felt like I had lost my legs again, and I was just trying to get to A to B and he [Williams] just offered us to go to breakfast with him and then he drove me there. And then we went somewhere else, and he drove me around and that’s how I got around all day,” says Adams. “And I thanked him kindly, like, if it wasn’t for you I’d probably be in my room somewhere mad because I can’t get through no doors.”

Later that second night, she got her loaner chair from medical services. Although it was two sizes smaller than her own size 18 wheelchair, it still fit her.

Letoi Adams finished with four gold medals at the 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Courtney Cooper).

Adams competed in the obstacle course, finishing in 5 minutes, 3.5 seconds to win the Women’s Open Division IV gold medal. She crushed it in field events the next morning — all in the backup chair, as well. She earned gold in women’s Open Division IV discus (26.3 meters), javelin (27.8 meters) and shot put (12.01 meters), and she also competed in wheelchair basketball. 

She says it’s not the sports that keep her coming back, though, it’s the other veterans.

“I love the sports, the whole week of competition and hanging around the vets is what I like,” Adams says. “Getting to know them all, talking about our sports, competing, just, yeah, it’s like being back in the military without being in the military.”

While Adams had to make an adjustment to competing in a new wheelchair, other NVWG participants had to adjust to new sports.

NVWG Sports Debuts

Three sports made their NVWG debuts in Orlando. The NVWG team challenge relay was a new event, while adaptive golf and indoor rowing were added as exhibition sports. 

Contested outdoors, the relay included a 200-yard freestyle swim, bench pressing based on body weight, 5K handcycling and a 200-meter dash. The winner was based on the team’s total time to complete all four events.

Nine teams participated in the relay, which was in honor of former PVA Sports Director Ernie Butler, who passed away in July. Teams comprised four people, including one member with quadriplegia, with one person competing in each event.

A more than hour-long rain delay at the National Training Center in Clermont, Fla., wasn’t enough to dampen the excitement of the PVA Central Florida Chapter capturing the inaugural title. The team finished in 16 minutes, 29 seconds, defeating the PVA Mid-Atlantic Chapter (18:40) and Keystone Chapter (18:42).

PVA Central Florida Chapter member and Army veteran David Rountree participated in the 200-meter dash for his squad. A first-time NVWG participant, the 63-year-old Rountree hadn’t competed in track before and says he wasn’t focused on the outcome.

“My whole thing for the event and the overall Games was just to have fun. I didn’t want to know times or things like that because I didn’t want to put myself under any kind of pressure or anything like that,” says Rountree, who also earned bronze medals in air rifle and boccia ball. “It was exciting. It was a very good sport to do.”

Fun was also the focus of many participants in the golf exhibition event at Shingle Creek Golf Club in Orlando. Using ParaGolfer mobility golf carts, athletes hit from tees specifically placed in the ground from around 150-200 yards out and played three holes. 

Army veteran Tammy Lawter wanted to see if she could learn some tips to help her reduce her score. Lawter, who sustained a T4 complete spinal-cord injury in a 1994 car accident, was happy to get some advice on her game.

“When I heard they were doing the golf tournament here and they were going to have this clinic and have people here to help with your strokes and do all that stuff, I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to sign up because I need all the help I can get,’” Lawter says, laughing. 

Lessons were also being learned by some athletes in the Games’ other exhibition sport, indoor rowing. Machines were set out at the Orange County Convention Center for a few days, and athletes could participate in races every half hour. 

Army veteran and PVA Kentucky-Indiana Chapter member Ted Rake learned a valuable lesson after his left side gave out on him just a minute into his race. Rake, who has a lower leg injury and multiple sclerosis, had to pull with only his right side.

“It’s a motivator for next year. Note to self, less beer more sit-ups,” he jokes. 

Super Feat In The Super G

It wasn’t a new sport, but there was a new format for one of the most popular events at the NVWG, the giant obstacle course called “Super G.”

Instead of participants tackling the course one at a time, the event switched to an exciting head-to-head format. The top two athletes from the four divisions in the similar obstacle course event called “Slalom” advanced to the “Super G.” Times were used to seed the athletes for a bracket-type showdown. 

Adding to the challenge, athletes had to complete the course three times to win it all, and the course changed with harder obstacles each time. The changes led to some impressive displays of endurance, especially from winner Tim Conner.

More than five minutes after capturing the title in his first try, Conner’s arms were still shaking. The 36-year-old Marine Corps veteran had defeated three opponents to win the Jim Hayes/Joe Little Trophy. 

Taking part in only his second NVWG, Conner defeated Navy veteran Terry Rock in the finals, finishing in 2 minutes, 19 seconds compared to Rock’s 3:12. Conner admitted it was tough to try and see and remember what he had to do for every obstacle. He didn’t know until that morning they’d be changing the course and making it more difficult each time. 

“‘Cause I was so excited, hot, winded, really my eyes wouldn’t focus on what was coming up and trying to hold my body up when I was going in reverse so I didn’t fall forward, ‘cause I got no trunk control, muscles fatigued bigtime,” says Conner, a Hilliard, Fla., resident and PVA Florida Gulf Coast Chapter member. 

Celebrity Surprises

Amazing events like the “Super G” and outstanding competitors such as Conner are big parts of the NVWG. However, also key is the support athletes get from family, friends and some special guests.

Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre was among those special guests to visit with NVWG athletes this year. The three-time NFL MVP met with some athletes following a wheelchair basketball clinic. Favre says he was supposed to talk to the athletes about adversity but believes he should be the one listening.

“Adversity I’ve overcome is nothing compared to what these guys and girls have had to overcome, I guess is what I’m trying to say,” Favre says. “If there was anything inspirational, they’re living proof. So I would encourage anyone to at least once visit, to be a part of an event like this, visit a hospital, just kind of a dose of reality, a good dose of reality.”

Favre wasn’t the only famous sports celebrity to visit this year’s NVWG. NASCAR driver Joey Logano was on hand for Kids Day and joined PVA members in helping children with physical disabilities in wheelchairs learn about adaptive sports.

“I think when you see what PVA stands for and you see a lot of the veterans here today and how they’ve given their life and sacrificed a lot for our country, and then to see that continue today as they try to encourage and mentor kids in wheelchairs that are going through similar situations. As a kid, not that it’s ever easy as an adult either, I can only imagine how much harder it is realizing that,” Logano says. “So it’s really cool to see the way they take their time, hang out with everyone and all that.”


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