For Paralyzed Veterans of America National President Al Kovach, Jr., returning to his hometown of Philadelphia for the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games marks a meaningful return to the birthplace of independence – a term that holds significance not only for our nation but for the tens of thousands of disabled veterans who strive to live full and active lives.
The fight for freedom is ingrained in the culture and roots of Kovach’s family, who, having settled in and around Philadelphia in the 1700s, lived through the American Revolution, the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776.
Fast forward roughly 200 years to 1991, when Kovach, a member of the elite Navy SEALs, was forced into a new fight for independence. After breaking his neck in a parachuting accident on May 21 of that year, Kovach learned he would not have to fight alone to regain his independence. Not only was Paralyzed Veterans of America there to help him every step of the way; a landmark law – the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – was enacted just one year prior to his accident.
“In a way, everything is coming full-circle now that I’m going back to Philadelphia as president of Paralyzed Veterans of America,” Kovach said. “The ADA was just passed when I was injured, and always considering Philly my home, I thought when I was first injured that it was an opportunity to move back home. But when I went back to visit my family, I realized that was impossible – the weather was terrible; there were cobblestone streets and old buildings. But here we are, 23 years after my injury, and now the city is welcoming us with open hands.”
While Kovach’s family moved to Detroit when he was 15 years old, he’s always considered Philadelphia his home as well as the place that instilled in him a passion for sports. While living in Philadelphia, Kovach swam for Germantown Academy, one of the premier swimming programs in the country. Kovach went on to swim for four years at Indiana University, one of the nation’s top collegiate swimming programs.
For his return to Philadelphia for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Kovach will be competing in two events – air rifles and handcycling. An added bonus of having the games in his hometown is that family members – from parents to aunts and uncles to cousins – will be on-site to cheer for him and his fellow veteran athletes. “I’m already looking forward to not just the games but spending time with my family again,” Kovach said.
While all cities, past and future, hosting the National Veterans Wheelchair Games hold their own special significance, Kovach believes Philadelphia will be particularly meaningful for this year’s veteran participants, all of whom are intimately familiar with the sacrifices made for freedom and independence.
“Philadelphia is where the U.S. began, and America has remained an independent country based on the efforts of veterans,” Kovach says. “I couldn’t think of a better town for the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Veterans have paid a big price for freedom, and this is where freedom started.”
And freedom continues in Philadelphia and across the country, Kovach says, for thousands of disabled veterans and others with disabilities who continue to fight for civil rights and independence.
“The Americans with Disabilities Act is about providing equal rights to all people with disabilities,” Kovach said. “This was the same battle our forefathers were fighting more than 200 years ago. It may be a different kind of independence, but the city represents a place where independence and freedom were won. Paralyzed Veterans of America has the same mission.”
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are co-presented by the Department of Veterans of Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.