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Veterans with MS Participate in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games

Julie Adams, CTRS, Recreational Therapist
VA Puget Sound Health Care System-Seattle

What are the wheelchair games? 
Who is eligible to participate? 
How should a Veteran prepare for the Games? 
What happens during the Week of Competition? 
What are the benefits and outcomes of participating? 
Contact Information

What are the wheelchair games?

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are the largest wheelchair sporting event of its kind in the world. This week long competition is hosted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, and co-sponsored by various committed organizations and companies. The games are held in different a city each year. Some of the cities that have generously hosted these games over the last 30 years include Omaha, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Anchorage, Spokane, and Milwaukee. Participating athletes choose from over sixteen different events to compete in, including power soccer, hand-cycling, bowling, table tennis, softball, basketball, quad rugby, swimming, track and field, motor rally, slalom, air guns, archery and weightlifting.
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Who is eligible to participate?

Veterans, both service connected and non-service connected who either use a manual or power wheelchair to participate in leisure, sports, and/or recreational activities are eligible to participate in the Games. No previous athletic experience or knowledge is required. All they need is the willingness to try something new and the dedication to make it happen. Veterans are typically evaluated by a Recreation Therapist to determine the level of appropriateness and commitment needed to participate in this event. At the VA Puget Sound Health Care System (VAPSHCS), once Veterans are determined to be eligible, medically stable and they demonstrate appropriate goals and motivation for various athletic events, they become part of our team and the planning and practice begins!
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How should a Veteran prepare for the Games?

Our first step is to match athletic events with the Veterans’ interest. Veterans participating as part of the Northwest Team are required to participate in the maximum number of events allowed which is five. We look at several things when determining which events might be appropriate for each individual:

  1. Past experiences or participation in particular events
  2. Current abilities and skills related to events
  3. Current interests related to former experiences with athletic events
  4. Current interests in trying new athletic experiences

Once we have determined which events might be appropriate for each individual, we set up training schedules at the VA to practice these events. Training schedules generally consist of one to three training sessions for each event. The goal of practice sessions is to simulate the actual event in order to give participants opportunities to adequately prepare for competition.

If the Veterans’ family members/caregivers are interested in traveling with the Northwest Team, then we assist them with the coordination of travel arrangements. Many Veterans who have not traveled since their diagnosis find this to be a wonderful opportunity to discover the process of traveling in a wheelchair using on airlines and in hotels. We travel as a team, so support is available throughout the trip to ensure success in this process. Depending on your participating VA medical center, the cost related to travel varies. For the Northwest Team, costs for a novice athlete (attending the Games for the first time) are usually covered by the local Northwest Paralyzed Veterans of America Chapter or VA Puget Sound Health Care System. The Veteran is usually responsible for the cost of caregivers/family members to attend unless a special arrangement is made with either the Northwest Paralyzed Veterans of America or the VA Puget Sound HCS. Typical costs for airline and hotel for the week is around $1200.00 per person. Numerous MS programs provide financial support for these games. It is important for Veterans to check with these programs in advance to see if funding might be available.
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What happens during the Week of Competition?

Once we arrive at our destination, we spend the first day settling into the hotel and familiarizing ourselves with the area. The following day, each athlete is required to register. The registration process involves classifying each Veteran’s level of athletic participation. This unique system includes a brief physical exam (generally completed ahead of time by Veterans’ primary care physicians at their local VA) and collects a verbal account from each Veteran about their medical condition. The classification process ensures that Veterans of similar abilities safely compete in each event. There are physicians, therapists and other healthcare providers that are available throughout the week for any medical concerns. On the night of registration, athletes participate in opening ceremonies, complete with a parade of athletes, lighting of the torch and entertainment!

Throughout the week, athletes participate in their individual events with the continued support of the Northwest Team coaches and staff. Gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded following the completion of each event. On days that Veterans are not competing, athletes have the opportunity to do some local sightseeing, and are encouraged to support other athletes as spectators at the other events. Athletes and family members also have the opportunity to participate in the annual block party hosted by the Games. At the end of the week, we participate in closing ceremonies, which consists of a banquet dinner, special awards, the passing of the torch and the much anticipated video highlights of the Games.
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What are the benefits and outcomes of participating?

Most Veterans find this experience gives them something to look forward to in life – a sense of purpose and drive. For some it has been a long time since they have felt this way. This opportunity shows people how to get back into healthy, active living focusing on “abilities” and NOT “disabilities.” Most have a life changing experience and a desire to return the following year. Upon our return home, many of our Veterans create their own leisure fitness programs in order to keep themselves in shape for the following year’s competition.

As a coach for the Northwest Team, I participate as a VA employee and my expenses are covered by the Northwest Paralyzed Veterans of America. However, some of the staff that support the Northwest Team are not only covering their own expenses, but are taking time off from their work to attend.

I have attended the Games as a coach for four years and to see the dedication and drive of over 550 wheelchair athletes never ceases to amaze and inspire me. These men and women not only made the ultimate sacrifice by defending our country, but they have all overcome obstacles in order to participate in something athletic, meaningful and truly rewarding. Roy, a novice athlete from the 2006 games said, “Before I found out about the Games, I had pretty much given up on life. The thought of participating in something like this gave me hope. It gave me something to look forward to and for that I will always be grateful.”
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Contact Information

If you are interested in participating in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, please contact the Recreation Therapist at your local VA for further information. You can also visit the National Veterans Wheelchair Games website at www.wheelchairgames.va.gov or you can contact me at Julie.Adams1@va.gov .

Last Updated: October 2009