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Veterans Health Administration

Pittsburgh Hosts Annual Veterans Wheelchair Games Aug. 1-6

More than 600 Veterans rolled into Pittsburgh August 1 for the annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Presented by Paralyzed Veterans of America (Paralyzed Veterans) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), this multi-event sports and rehabilitation program is for military service Veterans who use wheelchairs for sports competition due to spinal cord injuries, amputations or certain neurological problems. The Games are the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world.

The 17 different sports offered at the Games to promote rehabilitation through rigorous competition include:

  • air guns
  • archery
  • basketball
  • bowling
  • field
  • handcycling
  • motorized wheelchair rally
  • nine-ball
  • power soccer
  • quad rugby
  • slalom
  • softball
  • swimming
  • table tennis
  • track
  • trapshooting
  • weightlifting
Male Veteran in wheelchair playing ball

Jim Milliken

Jim Milliken: “Get active again.”

Jim Milliken, 64, a longtime participant in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, is a dedicated athlete who has learned through years of experience that training is the key to success.

Each year, Milliken heads to his local pool, nearly every day, to swim so that he stays in shape for the Games. In the past six years, his training has paid off as Milliken has placed first in each of his swimming events. Milliken says he plans to continue that tradition for a long time.

In 1988, Milliken was selected to be a part of the Paralympic swim team in Seoul, Korea. Milliken also competes as a member of a YMCA swim team, often against able-bodied people nearly half his age.

He was badly injured by a landmine while on patrol in Vietnam. Despite immediate surgery, doctors were unable to save his legs. He left the service as a double amputee, but through the rehabilitation of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, he gained back his spirit and drive to enjoy life to the fullest. “The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are a wonderful opportunity for injured Veterans to get active again,” Milliken said. For those who have competed before, it is a chance to enjoy the spirit of the Games and see old friends. If you can do this, then you can do anything. Meeting this challenge will help you down the road of life.”

The Rules

Rules for wheelchair sports are essentially the same as their stand-up counterparts, with some adaptations made as needed for wheelchair use. For example, basketball rules are determined by the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (which follows NCAA basketball rules) with the wheelchair considered part of the player’s body in ruling physical contact fouls.

Several sports offered at the Games have no able-bodied version, such as the wheelchair slalom, a challenging obstacle course for wheelchair users. Handcycling, the motorized wheelchair rally and quad rugby, while similar to able bodied sports, are also specific to wheelchair users.

Female Veteran in wheelchair coming down stairs

Holly Koester

Holly Koester: “Nothing I can’t do.”

Holly Koester has made amazing personal achievements since participating in her first wheelchair sports event in 1991, including becoming the first wheelchair track star to complete a marathon in all 50 states.

Koester, 51, was injured in a car accident in 1990, while on alert at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, and sustained injuries to her spinal cord.

Since transitioning into civilian life as a paraplegic, Koester has constantly pushed herself to greater feats and has not missed a year of competition at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games since she began.

In addition to her strong athletic drive, Koester also is very active in her community, both as the sports director for the Paralyzed Veterans of America Buckeye Chapter and as a substitute teacher in her local public school system.

As a special honor, Koester was one of 12 Veteran athletes chosen to be featured on Cheerios boxes in 2009.

“The National Veterans Wheelchair Games is the best event any injured Veteran could attend no matter how long they’ve been injured,” Koester said. “It builds skills, confidence and independence. From the games I learned there is nothing I can’t do.”

Concept Began After World War II

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are an outgrowth of VA’s historic involvement in wheelchair sports. Wheelchair sports had their beginning in the aftermath of World War II, when young disabled Veterans began playing wheelchair basketball in VA hospitals throughout the United States.

In 1980, when VA established a Recreation Therapy Service, it brought about an enhanced awareness of the rehabilitative value of wheelchair athletics. Since then, VA therapists have used wheelchair sports as a therapeutic tool for treating Veterans with disabilities.

The first National Veterans Wheelchair Games were held in 1981, the “International Year of Disabled Persons,” at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va. That year, 74 veterans from 14 states competed in sports ranging from table tennis and billiards, to swimming and weightlifting.

In 1985, recognizing that most of the athletes were paralyzed Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America offered to become a co-presenter of the Games. Since 1985, Paralyzed Veterans’ corporate sponsor program has helped the Games grow, both in number of competitors as well as variety of sports offered.

Male Veteran in wheelchair playing basketball

Orlando Perez

Orlando Perez: “The games get better every year.”

If you’ve been to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, chances are you know the name Orlando Perez.

Perez, a paraplegic, was injured when he was 19, while serving in the Army. He began competing in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games at age 24. After 12 years of competing in the games, Perez has become a shining example for other injured Veterans.

Perez, 36, is always looking out for fellow Veterans, from helping them compete to finding new ways to live life in a wheelchair. His steadfast desire to help others contributed to his selection as 2005 “Spirit of the Games Award” winner, an award which honors the competitor who best exemplifies athletic excellence, sportsmanship and good character.

Inspired by his experience as a mentor at the Games, Perez enrolled at Oklahoma State University where he’s currently studying to earn a degree in recreation therapy so that he can help guide other injured Veterans year-round.

When describing his favorite memories of the Wheelchair Games, Perez talks of serving as a mentor for Kids Day and how much it means for him to see the smiles on the faces of the children attending. A special “Kids Day” program allows children with disabilities to meet the athletes and be introduced to wheelchair sports.

At the Games, Perez is perhaps best known for his skills on the basketball court, playing so fiercely he often falls out of his chair. In 2010, he won two gold and two silver medals in track, contributing to the large collection he’s amassed over the years.

"The Games get better every year," said Perez. "You can see the level of competition and brotherhoods grow with the newly injured soldiers returning from overseas, and I’m sure the event in Pittsburgh will be another great time."

How you can help

The 2011 Games, scheduled for August 1-6, are hosted by the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System and the Keystone Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Typically, Veterans attend with local teams from around the country. The teams are usually part of Paralyzed Veterans’ chapters, although a few are based at local VA medical centers. Most of the local teams conduct fundraising activities all year to send their athletes to the Games. A small number of athletes attend independently and fund their on trips.

Want to support this event? Come see the events and cheer our Veterans on to victory. For information about sponsorship opportunities, contact Paralyzed Veterans of America at 800-424-8200, ext. 705, or by visiting: www.pva.org/2011games.

For more information about the Games, visit: www.wheelchairgames.va.gov