The Wolfpack is the first and only Active Duty Military Wheelchair Basketball team participating in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA). They are stationed at Naval Medical Center, San Diego (NMCSD). This is their first season participating in the NWBA. One other thing: they’re awesome.
Last weekend at the Bluegrass Invitational Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, the Wolfpack's warrior spirit was in full effect as they fought to prove they belonged in the highly competitive league. Displaying the tenacity and resolve only learned in military service, the Wolfpack bested their opponents in the finals game, earning the title of Division 3 Champions.
For service members healing in Army Warrior Transition Units (WTU), Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Battalions (WWB), and Navy Medical Transition Companies participating in adaptive sports can mean the difference between leading an active, healthy lifestyle and never fully recovering from injuries. The guys on the Wolfpack are living “mission redefined”, and providing an incredible example of what can be accomplished by involvement in adaptive sports.
If you know a disabled Veteran who needs some encouragement, connect him or her to our community sports club finder and our twitter account. There’s no better way for disabled Veterans to engage community level, adaptive sports in the communities where they live.
You can expect to see the Wolfpack in the upcoming National Championship Tournaments in April. And if history is any indication, it’s going to be one heck of an event.
Learn more about the Wolfpack by contacting Marla Knox, Team manager and Coach, Naval Medical Center San Diego, at email@example.com or (619) 532-7722.
Team selected by US Paralympics for competition in Sweden
U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, announced today that five athletes will represent the United States at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Championships, Feb. 23-March 5, in Solleftea, Sweden. The roster includes U.S. Navy Lt. Dan Cnossen (Jamestown, Mich.) and Andy Soule (Pearland, Texas), retired Army, who combined for five medals at the recent IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup event in Cable, Wis.
"We are excited to enter a strong team of athletes for the 2013 IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships," said John Farra, high performance director for U.S. Paralympics Nordic skiing. "All of the athletes selected are coming off a very successful IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup on home soil in Cable, Wis., where Dan and Andy medaled. The other three have closed the gap and are climbing toward the podium. It is going to be fun to see what Team USA can do next month."
Team USA has never medaled at the IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships.Each athlete on the U.S. team is an active duty or military Veteran. Competing for the United States in Solleftea with Cnossen and Soule are: Eric Frazier (Maple Hill, N.C.), retired Marine Corps; Sean Halsted (Spokane, Wash./Twin Lakes, Idaho), retired Air Force; and Jeremy Wagner (Honolulu, Hawaii), retired Army Reserve.
Team USA won 13 medals at the IPC Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable. Cnossen led the way with four medals, two in biathlon and two in cross-country, while Soule won a silver medal in the middle biathlon event. At the Vancouver 2010 Paralympic Winter Games, Soule won a bronze medal in 2.4km biathlon, becoming the first U.S. athlete to medal in biathlon at the Olympic or Paralympic Winter Games.An estimated 150 athletes from 15 countries will compete in biathlon and cross-country races at the competition, which marks the final world championship before the Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games. The event will be the third world championship for Nordic skiing. Previous IPC Nordic Skiing World Championships took place in Khanty Mansiysk, Russia, in 2011, and the inaugural event was in Vuokatti, Finland, in 2009.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and US Paralympics partner to provide physically disabled Veterans with increased opportunities of activity and wellness.
The Olympic Opportunity Fund is a collaborative between the United States Olympic Committee and VA. The Fund provides grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 to organizations that support Paralympic sport and physical activity programs for disabled Veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces.
The VA also provides a training allowance to athletes who meet established eligibility requirements, including training commitment and qualifying competition standards set forth by US Paralympics.
Participation success highlights partnership of VA, US Paralympics
It was an accident not unheard of for a young combat Veteran.
In June 2008, Omar Bermejo had recently returned from his fourth deployment to Iraq. The then 27 year-old Marine Corps sergeant was racing through life, searching for the familiar rush of fear and adrenaline that had been fueled by bullets and IED’s only months before. He bought a motorcycle with the money he’d received as a bonus for his service.
The curve, the gravel, a sense of invincibility, all caused him to lose control of the bike, he said. He slammed into a guardrail nearly severing his arm between the bike and the metal. Many surgeries later, doctors would amputate his arm at the shoulder.
“The day to forget and the day my life changed,” Bermejo said. “It’s true when they say that one of the ways to appreciate life to the fullest, is to almost die.”
In the aftermath of his changed life he became depressed and hopeless. “I was pretty down after my accident,” he said. The once fit Marine says he gained weight and felt out of shape. He decided to use some of his benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and visited a nearby VA Medical Center.
“They were awesome, always letting me know I’m not by myself,” he said. “I knew it’s not over. My time here is not over yet.”
He remembers a visit to a wing of hospitalized Veterans all of them amputees.
“There was this guy who lost his leg above the knee. He was telling me ‘Don’t give up. Don’t cash in. Give it your all.’”
Today, Bermejo is a competitive Nordic skier with hopes of making the 2014 Paralympics in biathlon, a combination of cross country skiing and marksmanship. He was one of eight military Veterans on the 11-man U.S. biathlon team at the International Paralympic Committee Nordic Skiing World Cup in Cable, Wisc. Jan. 12-20.
The number of Veterans who competed in the event is an example of the joint efforts by the VA and US Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, to provide physically disabled Veterans with increased opportunities of activity and wellness.
Through an active recruitment effort, US Biathlon Paralympic coach Rob Rosser said he makes visits to military and VA Medical Centers year round.
“Most Veterans joined the military because they wanted a challenge, are highly competitive and enjoy physical exertion,” he said. “Biathlon combines the most physiologically demanding sport of cross country skiing with a more mentally challenging sport of marksmanship, under stress of high heart rate and the pressure of the clock running as they shoot. Veteran athletes tell me they picked biathlon because it was the most challenging and most similar to their combat job – moving and shooting.”
Army Veteran Jeremy Wagner wasn’t sure if biathlon was for him when he was first asked to try the sport.
In 2007, after a year in Iraq, he too returned home and suffered a motorcycle accident. The crash injured his spinal cord and he lost the use of his legs.
“After my injury I was just taking it one day at a time,” Wagner said. “I did some rehab on my own, but my cousin helped me go to the VA.”
The Hawaii native was treated at the Palo Alto VA Medical Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Center in California.
“That’s where my real road to recovery began,” he said. “My therapist in Palo Alto gave me all the necessary tools to get me going again.” She also introduced him to the VA’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
In 2010, while competing in the Games in Denver, Wagner was approached by a Paralympics biathlon coach.
“I guess he saw me doing the slalom event, and he asked me if I’d be interested in biathlon.”
Wagner took a chance and gave up the sandy beaches of Hawaii for the snowcaps of the Colorado Rockies. He moved in with his cousin in Colorado where he now trains full-time in biathlon.
His effort has paid off. In June 2012, Wagner was named to the 2012-13 US Paralympic Nordic Skiing National Team.
“You may think, ‘I’ll never be at that level,’ but you never know until you try,” he said. “A lot of us, we want to be good at something right away. When we don’t, we give up. But every champion wasn’t a champion from the start.”
Wagner trains at the National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winter Park, Colo.
In October 2012, NSCD was named one of 97 organizations to receive a grant through the Olympic Opportunity Fund, a partnership between the United States Olympic Committee and VA. The Fund provides grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 to organizations that support Paralympic sport and physical activity programs for disabled Veterans and disabled members of the Armed Forces.
In its third year, the fund has provided more than $4 million to 223 USOC partner and community programs, and has resulted in thousands of Veterans with physical and visual impairments participating in sport programs.
“The partnership and support from the VA has given hope to numerous Veterans,” Rosser said. “As the programs grow and expand, the entire country gains awareness of the positive aspects sport offers our Veterans, and the long-lasting affects it has on their quality of life after the sacrifice they have made for our country.”
Wagner also receives a monthly training allowance from the VA. The VA and US Paralympics’ collaborative provides a stipend to athletes who meet established eligibility requirements, including training commitment and qualifying competition standards.
“The stipend really helps with purchasing poles, gloves, all of the other equipment that’s necessary,” he said.
When Kevin Burton arrived at the event in Cable, he was still learning the sport and had yet to qualify for the training stipend.
In 2010, while on active duty in the Navy, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease. The former Arabic linguist had served nine years with the Navy including tours to Iraq and Kuwait when he began losing his eyesight. Before being medically retired, he was treated at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center’s Augusta Blind Rehabilitation Center in Georgia.
“The blind rehab program was amazing,” Burton said. “I was really worried about losing my remaining vision, but after going through that, I’m not that worried. I know I can still do pretty much anything.”
In March 2012, Burton attended the VA’s National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colo. It was the first time he’d been on skis since losing his sight.
Like all biathlon athletes, he skis and shoots targets, but being visually impaired he has a guide who skis in front of him and shouts directions during the cross country skiing. When it comes time to shoot the rifle he uses audio cues and the pitch of a tone to zone in on the target.
“You wear headphones to tell you how close you are, and if you are on target,” he said. “The normal shooting advice doesn’t apply to the visually impaired. It’s strictly distance from the center.”
Despite his newcomer status, Burton went on to win a silver medal in Cable and his finishing time was good enough to earn him the VA training stipend.
“A lot of my success is because of the support I’ve been given from day one,” he said. “But I’ve still got to work hard and keep improving.”
Bermejo agreed. He also qualified for the training allowance during the event.
“Know if you put in the work and have positive thoughts, good things will happen,” he said. “The opportunities are there, but in the end, if you want something you will go get it.”
Michael Johnston is a paratriathlete with hopes of competing in the sport’s Paralympic Games debut in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
But he is also part of another mission: He’s trying to encourage fellow Veterans and members of the Armed Forces with physical disabilities to get involved in sports to help open doors to new activities, enrich their lives and get them moving forward.
The “Mission Redefined” campaign, a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and U.S. Paralympics, will release a 30-second public service announcement on Jan. 15 that features Johnston sprinting down a track.
Johnston says it’s a campaign he’s proud to be a part of, and believes it’s necessary to help disabled Veterans see what’s possible.
“When they get out of the military, they don’t really know where to go,” he said. “They don’t know how to get reconnected with their community, with life, so sports are a great way of bridging that gap.”
* * *
Johnston knows firsthand about making the transition from being injured in the military to becoming an athlete.
In 2003, Johnston, then in the Navy, lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident. Yet he was able go through rehabilitation, learn to walk with a prosthesis and return to active duty.
His life had gone through a traumatic change, but by staying in the Navy for another seven years he was able to adjust while in a familiar environment.
“I was expected to do the same duties as everybody else and that I previously had been doing,” he said.
But it wasn’t easy.
“After I was injured, I wasn’t even 21 yet, so I had no idea who I was or what I wanted to achieve in my life and I had very little direction,” he recalled.
After going through rehabilitation and learning to use his prosthesis (his leg was amputated just below the knee), he began to challenge himself.
What were his limits? What could he do physically? He wanted to not only test himself but prove to others that assumptions of limitations were wrong.
“(It) gave me a drive and determination to break those perceptions, you know, that ‘This guy’s going to slow us down’ and whatnot, of physical limitations that people associate with a lot of amputees and disabilities in general,” he said.
Eventually, he got involved in sports through the Navy’s Operation Rebound program and also the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
In 2008, he began competing in paratriathlons, and he’s competed internationally for the U.S. Paratriathlon National Team. In 2011, he finished fourth at the ITU Paratriathlon World Championship in Beijing.
Becoming an athlete has helped Johnston redefine his own life.
Now he is trying to help others redefine theirs.
* * *
The PSA begins with Johnston at the starting line. At the sound of a starter’s pistol, Johnston bursts from the blocks.
As the camera captures him in full stride, the words “Passion,” “Power,” and then “Strength” appear in place of his churning left leg, until “Strength” explodes and falls away, revealing Johnston’s racing prosthesis. As he sprints away, the words “Mission Redefined” appear on screen and a narrator says, “Redefine your mission. Find a sport, get involved.” The spot ends with the Mission ReDefined and U.S. Paralympics logos.
Viewers can then go to the Department of Veterans Affairs Adaptive Sports site (www.va.gov/adaptivesports) to find affiliated sports clubs around the nation in which they can get involved.
As Johnston reflects on the weeks and months after his injury in 2003, he believes the “Mission Redefined” campaign would have been inspirational.
“It would definitely move me and hopefully inspire me to get out and re-engage in sports and life again,” he said, recalling that he felt lost at the time.
The message with this campaign, he said, is that people and programs are out there to help Veterans get moving, and being active — finding a sport or activity — is a terrific step. But the message, he said, is even simpler.
“The big push I have is just getting involved,” said Johnston, now living in San Diego. “Just getting off the couch and being reconnected.”
* * *
Christopher Nowak, VA’s director of National Veterans Sports Programs and Special Events, is in charge of the “Mission Redefined” campaign. Nowak, a Marine Corps Veteran who lost his right leg while serving, started work on the campaign in 2011.
To Nowak, Mission Redefined has multiple meanings.
“One is the VA itself,” Nowak said. “We’re redefining our mission on how we deliver adaptive sports to Veterans as well as sporting opportunities. And also we’re using the campaign for Veterans. There’s an opportunity to redefine their mission in life. They’ve been through a traumatic injury and this is an opportunity for them to use sports to redefine their mission.”
The campaign’s name works, he said, because to men and women in the military, “everything is defined as a mission.”
“What we hope with this campaign is that Veterans understand that after a traumatic injury life is not over. It may seem like it, they all go through it, as well as I did,” he said. “You go through a certain phase in your life after your injury. But something clicks in” to get them back on track, he said, and sports can be a giant part of that process.
This campaign, combined with the success and attention garnered by some of the military Veterans competing at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, is providing a whole new layer of attention and information for Veterans, Nowak said.
And working with the U.S. Olympic Committee as a partner, he said, has helped the VA “get out of the box” and push the message in the most effective way possible.
For Johnston, who was involved in filming the PSA— doing countless takes until 2 or 3 in the morning on a high school track north of Los Angeles — the joint V.A./U.S. Paralympic campaign is worth every penny.
“Anybody that sees it will connect with it,” he said. “It breaks down all borders. It’s not just amputees, not just military. Everybody will connect with forward movement.”
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.
Get started by learning how disabled Veterans can benefit from adaptive sports. Check out the website and if you still have questions, contact us at vacoadaptiveSP@va.gov.