Lying in bed depressed, nearly despondent, Mason Symons contemplated suicide. He had enlisted in the Army in 2008 and a year later was serving as an E4 when he lost control of his motorcycle and suffered C-5–C-7 spinal cord injuries. He was 20 years old, looking at four months of recovery at Magee Rehabilitation in Philadelphia, and grappling with the fact that he would never walk again.
Adaptive sports, particularly quad rugby, finally made the light click on for Symons. He had always been active and competitive. He loved sports. He heard about the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) and attending and competing became his initial goal. He began training and rehabilitating with a newfound vigor. Something was beginning to fill a massive hole in his life.
A year ago, Symons was a novice at the 32nd NVWG in Richmond. Young, new to the Games, he said he was a bit lost at first, anxious even. Still, the desire to succeed and compete was apparent. At that time he said, “It’s a soldier’s mentality. I can get up on my own now if I fall. I want to be independent. I want to leave a legacy. I would encourage everyone else in this same situation to get out. Do something. Meet new people. Learn new things. Never give up.”
This year Symons confirms that his thoughts from a year ago were correct. “It’s vital,” he said after completing two consecutive games of quad rugby. Dripping with sweat and utterly exhausted, he was still smiling. He gave a fist bump to a kid in a wheelchair. He offered a high-five to another child who was standing, waving a small U.S. flag. He paused for pictures with new fans.
“I’d say the Games are a must,” he continued. “You learn so much from people. It’s fine to read about how you’re supposed to live and get around but the way you really learn is from experience, and the Games give you experience.”
Last year Symons was realizing a passion for quad rugby. Today he lives it. He has recently moved from Pennsylvania to Austin, Texas, to be part of the Texas Stampede quad rugby team, which is essentially a developmental team for the U.S. Paralympics team. He’s lost 55 pounds since the Games in Richmond. He’s training daily and adds that rugby, or “murderball” as it’s sometimes known, is a year-round commitment for him. He has dreams of reaching the highest level of the sport.
He also wants to go back to school to study psychology and work with disabled children and perhaps even open an accessible gym. That passion to help children was evident as he mentored at Kids Day in Tampa, as he had done in Richmond last year. He helped fellow athlete Holly Koester lead the kids in silly songs and cadences as the day began. Stationed behind home plate at T-ball, he laughed about being hit five times with the kids’ bats over the course of the day as he helped them learn.
This year at the Games, Symons says he’s home. “I met a lot of folks last year and we stay in touch through Facebook or whatever. It’s great to come back and see them this year. We’re family.”
Learn more about the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa
Tim W. Jackson is a freelance writer and editor in Asheville, N.C.