The National Veterans Wheelchair Games: An Outsider’s Perspective

Super G at the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games
More photos from the 2013 NVWG
Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.            — Wilma Rudolph

The task at hand is so daunting. My mind cannot comprehend how even the most able-bodied among us could finish the slalom course known as the Super-G—the super-giant course that, in my estimation, rises as one of the pinnacles of athletic endeavor. For the second year, I was tasked by Paralyzed Veterans of America to chronicle the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). My first year in Richmond was emotional. I was amazed by athleticism and intensity that I witnessed. My eyes filled with tears too many times to count.

At my second Games, just completed in Tampa, I thought I would be used to the sights and sounds of my surroundings. I wasn’t. Wilma Rudolph said that the potential for greatness lives within each of us. That may be true. I apparently haven’t tested it in myself, but I have witnessed it first-hand at the NVWG. I am awed and inspired by the greatness that I see.

I can’t fully grasp the emotion that wells up inside of me while at the Games. Am I happy? Sad? Am I just amazed to see how the human spirit triumphs over such adverse situations and dark days? Probably more so the latter, but I think the myriad of emotions running through me are deep. Witnessing the Games are something that I believe everyone should do—at least once.

I don’t come from a military family. I never served in the military. I’ve never been in a battle. I don’t get around in a wheelchair. I believe that the role of our military is certainly up for debate in a free and democratic society and the merits of war can—and should—be questioned at all times. What I cannot deny, though, is what I see with my own eyes, what I have seen for two consecutive years in Richmond and in Tampa.

I’ve seen veterans give their all in that Super-G event of which I just spoke. As they fought and struggled with the course and with themselves, part of me thought, “This is too hard. Just give up. Just stop. This is crazy. No one will fault you.” Part of me thought, “You can do this. I know you can. Keep going!” Maybe those opposing thoughts are the reason for the confusing emotions.

The assembled crowd would clap and cheer as participants struggled up ramps and over curbs and through sand and gravel. Faces red, veins popping, the determination never stopped. One volunteer stands out clearly in my mind. Texas Longhorns baseball cap, brown UPS T-shirt, and plaid shorts, the bespectacled 20-something volunteer stood, hands on knees, screaming encouragement with the vigor like a cross between a drill sergeant and a personal trainer. His enthusiasm was contagious.

The Super G condenses all of that competitive spirit and willpower and never-quit attitude into one event, but the events I watched over the week and the stories I heard left an indelible impression.

In my novice year reporting on the Games, I did an article about Mason Symons, who was a novice in Richmond. It was great to do a follow-up article on him in our second year, reporting on his progress and success, especially in the realm of quad rugby.

In an article on the oldest and youngest competitors of the Games I talked to the lovely and effervescent Doris Merrill, who served in the Navy in World War II, and the handsome young sailor Matt Kleeman, who is just 20—born when Doris was a mere 69 years old. Matt competed in one of the earlier slalom events. “It was harder than I thought it would be,” he told me afterward. Yeah, no kidding.

I had an immediate bond with Ben Tomlinson. Participating in air rifle when I first saw him, he was sporting an Alabama Crimson Tide T-shirt. Any athlete at the Games supporting my alma mater has to be OK. Shot in Afghanistan, Ben is rehabilitating well using adaptive sports. Hailing from Jacksonville, Ala., I’ll always think of Ben when I hear any reference to that town and I’ll think of him when I’m watching ’Bama games this fall and wonder if he’s cheering along, too.

I had dinner one night with Jonathan Moore and his wife, Jennifer. I was just a guy eating dinner by himself when Jonathan asked me to join them. No notebook in hand, no voice recorder, I just wanted to get to know them—off the record. I learned a lot about the life and struggles of veterans. I ponder if there is a way to fix some of those problems. I sincerely want the best for them and their kids, and I hope Jonathan makes it to the 2016 Paralympic Games as an archer.

I met so many athletes who made such strong impressions: Twila Adams, Sam Bell, Stephen Bush, Davis Celestine, Jessica Greene, Angie Lupe, Rickey Wood, and so many others. But not every great story belonged to the veterans competing in the Games. I enjoyed meeting sponsors and coaches and hearing their stories. I was amazed at hearing the logistics feats of the organizers. I enjoyed getting to know some of the staff of Paralyzed Veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs, who work nearly 24-7 to make the Games a success.

And then there was Jeff Cotten, a veteran of the Marine Corps living in the Tampa area who volunteered for the Games at the suggestion of a friend and who spent almost all of his waking hours during the week at the Games. He became so enamored with the event that he is planning to go to Philadelphia next year so that he can volunteer again. Oorah!

Learn more about the National Veterans Wheelchair Games 

Tim W. Jackson is a writer and editor living in Asheville, N.C.

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