Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wheelchair Games Provide Therapy, Fun for Disabled Vets

Photo: William Kafka, a disabled veteran from El Paso, Texas, prepares to take a shot during nine-ball pool at the 28th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Omaha, Neb. Department of Veterans Affairs photo

About 500 disabled veterans, including recently wounded warriors from Iraq and Afghanistan, are entering their final day of competition here today at the 28th National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

The event is the world's largest annual wheelchair sports competition. It brings together veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations or other mobility or neurological conditions to compete in 17 different events.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake, who opened the competition July 25, called it a big part of the veterans' rehabilitation and said the games provide "a therapeutic extension" of the top-notch health care veterans receive in VA medical centers.

"Rehabilitation is crucial to living a full life following an injury," Peake said. "I applaud all of the veterans participating as they strive to achieve their goals during this week of athletic competition."

Competition was running fierce during the third day of competition yesterday, with participants fanned out to venues across Omaha to compete in swimming, basketball, track, weight lifting, softball, air guns, quad rugby, nine-ball billiards, field events, bowling, table tennis, archery, hand cycling, wheelchair slalom, trapshooting, a motorized wheelchair relay, and power soccer.

In addition, athletes with prostheses had the option of competing in several stand-up events.

Airmen 1st Class Silvia Lisseth and Crystal Holk, both active-duty airmen at nearby Offutt Air Force Base served as volunteers at a platform in the Qwest Center, where winners received their medals.

Lisseth said she was blown away by the veterans' enthusiasm for the games.

"It's amazing to see how much they put into this and how much heart they have in it," she said. Holk said she felt honored to announce each winner's awards before the medal presentations. "It's really inspiring to see how motivated they are to come and win these, and then to see the big smiles when they wear those medals," she said.

But Randy L. Pleva Sr., president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which cosponsors the games, said the games are about much more than medals. "They're a mix of camaraderie, competition and courage," he said. "And they're rehabilitation at its best for our paralyzed veterans."

Tiffany Smith, a recreational therapist from Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, brought five patients to the games, three of them for the first time. "It's a real morale boost for them to come here and get challenges personally outside the hospital setting," she said.

The games "bring back their competitive streak and show them that they are able to return to what they used to do in a competitive way," Smith said. Meanwhile, they provide a forum for building leadership, self-esteem and a sense of teamwork, she said.

Participating in the games "opens a whole doorway for them," said Steve Zaracki, a sports coordinator who works for the Paralyzed Veterans of America. "You see their spirit open up. It's inspiring."

Zaracki said it's particularly gratifying to work with recent combat veterans who still are adjusting to their wounds.

"It makes you really want to provide for them because of all that they have done for us," he said. "You want to motivate them. You want to push them. You want to inspire them to say, 'Look, I can do this. There is life in a wheelchair.'"

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