The National Veterans Wheelchair Games: Much More than Sports

Wheelchair rugby at the National Veterans Wheelchair GamesThe 540 athletes that competed in the 32nd National Veterans Wheelchair Games are a testament not just to their own determination and spirit, but to the power of adaptive sports to change lives—and inspire others to do the same.

Tom Brown, who was a rehabilitation therapist at McGuire VA hospital and director of the first Wheelchair Games, knows firsthand the therapeutic value of adaptive sports. Born without legs—”I have been basically between artificial legs and wheelchairs all my life”—at age 7 he was the youngest member of an all-men’s wheelchair basketball team.
 
While majoring in music at the University of Illinois, Brown enthusiastically participated in UI’s wheelchair sports program—one of the few in the country at the time. In the end, love of sports prevailed; he pursued his master’s in therapeutic rehabilitation (TR).

“The goal of TR is to get people with disabilities out into the community,” Brown, Paralyzed Veterans’ director for the 32nd Games, explains. “When you’ve had a traumatic injury it affects your social life, self-confidence and self-worth. So we work on whole body, mind and soul. All of these [injured] were military vets, parts of teams—now suddenly they are on their own, they can’t be part of something. Our job is to say ‘your life has changed but it hasn’t gone up in smoke.’ ”

Dr Ken Lee, head of spinal cord medicine at VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, and himself a combat veteran and former patient (he received a traumatic brain injury from a suicide car bombing) seconds Brown’s view. “We’ve been pushed to do some sports since childhood,” he says. “It makes sense that when we have an injury or life-altering medical event, we can use sports to get back into the world—the wheelchair is no longer a boundary.”

A member of the Games’ national physician team since 1999, Dr. Lee sees it as an event that epitomizes adaptive sports’ unique healing abilities. “Many people think adaptive sports are fun and games,” he says. “They don’t realize it is all about rehab. Adaptive sports keep the rehab in motion—and keeps the injured moving forward.”

Both Lee and Brown see an added value in the sheer numbers competing. “The modeling between a new vet and a worldly vet, who has been to the Games and been out in the community is remarkable,” Brown says. “It’s worth probably more than any therapist or hospital program could ever do. It’s one thing for an able-bodied person to tell them ‘you can do it’—when they see fellow vets doing it, it sinks in.”

Learn more about Paralyzed Veterans' Sports and Recreation Programs

Lee Fleming is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose articles appear in national publications and on the Web. 

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    The National Veterans Wheelchair Games: Much More than Sports