Army National Guard veteran William "Willie" Hendrickson never realized the passion he held for sports until he became paralyzed. But then, after he learned about the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, he’s competed every year since.
William "Willie" Hendrickson talks power soccer and more at the NVWG
“Believe it or not, I was never really into sports until I competed in the Wheelchair Games,” Hendrickson says. “Once I got into sports, it became a whole aspect of my life that I never knew existed.”
He has since won 23 gold, three silver and three bronze medals in the Games, in events including bowling, shot put, the powerchair relay, motor rally, power soccer and slalom. At this year’s Games in Tampa, he competed in power soccer, motor rally and slalom.
Hendrickson served in the Army National Guard from 1985 to 1987, but was medically discharged after being injured in a training accident. In 2005, he suffered a broken neck, a stroke and traumatic brain injury as a result of a motorcycle accident. It was shortly thereafter that he became a member of the Cal Diego chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America.
“The Games are designed so that we can get experiences doing other things,” he says. “I can’t thank (Paralyzed Veterans of America and VA) enough for putting together the Wheelchair Games because it gives us a chance to get out and try other venues of activity that keep us going.”
Hendrickson says he is grateful for the opportunities the Wheelchair Games provide. And he works tirelessly from year to year to help extend his passion for the event to others, including raising money to ensure that the members of his wheelchair team, the San Diego Beachcombers, are able to attend.
“It’s the one time of the year that we all get to feel normal because we’re amongst a bunch of people who are just like us,” he says. “It’s a time when can all relax, have fun and talk out any problems our brothers might have. We all work together.”
And Hendrickson has become a favorite among competitors and fans for more than his athletic exploits. He gets a new tattoo on his body each year in honor of the Games, and he does something different with his waist-length hair, such as dying it a variety of colors.
“A lot of people ask each year what I’m going to do with my hair,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll tell them or post a picture on Facebook, but this year, I kept it a surprise until we arrived.”
Learn more about the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa
Brittany Ballenstedt is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Government Executive, National Journal, Technology Daily and NextGov.com.