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Many wheelchair athletes playing rugby

The technical term is “psychomotor learning”—another way of saying people figure out things by doing them. It’s how children learn to maximize their strength-and-movement resources, playing, racing, throwing, jumping. The same is true for individuals who rehabilitate most successfully after a catastrophic disability, such as paralysis.

“It’s like we’re a newborn baby and starting life all over again,” explained Andy Krieger, director of Sports and Recreation for Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans). “What can we do? What can we not do? What are the new rules?

“When you’re in a rehab hospital, you don’t know what you can do. You say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can never do this again.’ ”

Krieger, who has a degree in K-12 physical education, said that individuals who recover best after catastrophic injuries are those who play their way into maximized function.

Geoff Hopkins, Paralyzed Veterans’ associate director of Sports and Recreation, was injured in a 1988 motorcycle accident. As an athlete, he was eager to get back to competing.

“I traded in my running shoes for a racing wheelchair,” he said. “My first exposure to adaptive sports was the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Long Beach (CA) 1989.” 

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games is the largest annual wheelchair sports competition in the world. The event is copresented each year by Paralyzed Veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) with additional support from numerous corporate and community sponsors. The VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and Keystone Paralyzed Veterans of America will host the 2011 Games in Pittsburgh, August 1–6.

“I think everyone has an affinity for some type of sport or recreation activity,” Krieger said. “The Games offers 17 events for people of all levels of injury and athletic experience. At Paralyzed Veterans of America, we offer a number of sports and recreational programs in hopes of appealing to the newly injured—to get them involved.”

Paralyzed Veterans has programs from fishing and trapshooting to competitive handcycling to bowling and billiards.

As individuals become involved in activities and begin to push themselves athletically, they expand their thinking as well.

“You have the physical and mental,” Krieger said. “It’s rehabilitation of the mind and body. The mind and the body are one. You can’t have one without the other. Otherwise, the body won’t be in harmony. I’d say the psychological aspects are as, or more important, than the physical side.”

Hopkins agreed. “Adaptive sports needs to be a part of the overall rehabilitation process. It affects you not only physically, but mentally and socially.”

The rehabilitative component was first recognized as Paralyzed Veterans after World War II, recuperating in VA hospitals, organized wheelchair basketball games and activities.

“Paralyzed Veterans as an organization and adaptive sports were on a congruent path of development. We can and should take pride in knowing our Paralyzed Veterans’ founding fathers were the founders of sports and recreation for all people with disabilities,” Krieger said.

Patrick McCallister is a reporter in Florida and frequent contributor to PN Magazine.


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