A year ago Matt Kleemann was a Navy diver, an E4 stationed in Connecticut at the U.S. Naval Submarine Base New London. In early December of 2012, having only been enlisted since 2011, Kleemann was involved in an auto accident that left him paralyzed. “T-8 complete,” his doctor said. After numerous surgeries and two weeks in intensive care at the Yale-New Haven Hospital, he was then moved to rehab.
At 20 years old, Kleemann is the youngest athlete at the 33rd National Wheelchair Games this week in Tampa—not too far from Stuart, Fla., where he now calls home.
By contrast, Doris Merrill was in the Navy from 1944 to 1946, where she worked in intelligence as part of the WAVES program (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The great grandmother from Nanticoke, Pa., is now age 89. She’s a regular fixture of the Games, a vibrant personality who is still winning medals. She’s been attending since the 1999 Games in Puerto Rico.
Kleemann signed up for the Games about three months after his injury. “Other veterans told me about it and told me I’d love it,” he said. Having just finished the brutal slalom course for the first time, Kleemann said the overall experience has been a really good one. “I’ve met so many different people, from those newly injured like myself to those who have been in chairs for 30 or 40 years,” he said.
His occupational therapist suggested he try the slalom event, an event that tests and helps develop chair skills. “It was a little harder than I thought,” he said, face still red from the exertion.
A lifelong waterskier, Kleemann appreciated that waterskiing was one of the exhibition sports. “It makes you feel like you don’t have a disability, you’re just out there skiing with everyone else.”
Merrill, who loves the personal interactions at the Games, especially with the younger vets, said she comes away each year “rejuvenated.” “I’m so much better now than I was 15 years ago. This is so important. Everyone cheers you on. You’re a part of their lives. It’s a place where you’re not alone, and inspiration is all around you.”
Kleemann is happy to have discovered adaptive sports through the Games. “Any chance you get to try adaptive sports, do it,” Kleemann advised. “Try as many sports as you can and find what’s right for you and what you enjoy.”
Merrill offered similar advice: “Don’t quit. Don’t give up. Come and try it and you’ll be back next year…I’ll see you in Philadelphia!”
Learn more about the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa
Tim W. Jackson is a freelance writer and editor in Asheville, N.C.