Laura Schwanger joined the Army in 1979 as a meteorological observer. At age 24 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, thus ending her military career in 1982. For a while, Schwanger said, she simply existed. “Upon my separation from the Army, I had good benefits but I was retired and in a wheelchair and didn’t really know what to do,” she explained.
Within a couple years, though, Schwanger said she happened to be at the right place at the right time. She was living near Boston when friends took her to see the Boston Marathon. “The first 12 competitors to cross the finish line were in chairs,” she said. “I knew right then what I wanted to do.”
Schwanger got involved in wheelchair sports, falling in love with track and field. She competed in the Paralympic Games of 1988, ’92 and ’96. Overall, she competed in 11 events. She brought home 11 medals and retired from international competition. Or so she thought.
In 2006 she was presented with yet another challenge: cancer. As part of her rehabilitation, she took up rowing. Her new enthusiasm combined with her natural athleticism to allow Schwanger to once again rise to the top of the sport—or at least very near the top. In 2008 she was a Paralympian once again and earned a bronze medal in rowing. The two medalists ahead of her were half her age.
Schwanger has once again retired from international competition. She attended her first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in 1987. She now sees herself as a role model, mentor and cheerleader for other NVWG athletes.
She said the Games allow competitors to see what they like to do. The key then is to like something, be good at it and train to be better. “There are so many more events now than when I first game to the Games,” she said. “This is a chance to get back into life.”
Now living in New Jersey, Schwanger has plans to move to St. Petersburg, Fla., soon. That means she’ll be next door to the 2013 NVWG in Tampa. Schwanger is already planning to take on an even bigger role in those Games.
Learn more about the National Veterans Wheelchair Games
Tim W. Jackson is a freelance writer and editor in Asheville, N.C.