“Whether it's the best of times or the worst of times, it's the only time we've got.” -- Art Buchwald, American humorist and United States Marine Corps veteran, 1942-1945
At 22 years old, Mike Savicki was training to become a Navy F-14 pilot when he dove into the waters off Pensacola Beach, Fla., and suffered a C6 spinal cord injury resulting in quadriplegia. End of story.
For some maybe. But Savicki’s storied life had just begun.
In 1991, after eight months of rehabilitation at the then Brockton West Roxbury VA Medical Center, Savicki entered his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Miami, Fla. Twenty-three years later, Savicki is still competing, and this week marked his 22nd appearance at the Games in Tampa, Fla.
A standout high school and college athlete, Savicki says he turned to sports as part of his rehabilitation from his injury.
“Sports were more fun than staying in bed feeling sorry for myself,” he writes on his website.
Since his injury, the former Navy officer received a MBA from Duke University and gave the commencement address at his graduation ceremony. He completed the Boston Marathon several times, competed as a member of the national quad rugby team for a spot on the 2004 US Paralympics team, finished the 70-mile Beach to Battleship Half Ironman triathlon in 2009, and earned a bronze medal with the Navy team at the 2010 Warrior Games.
“I like to spend my days discovering the wonder, excitement, marvel and beauty of life,” he says.
Savicki’s accomplishments reach beyond the rugby courts and racetracks as well. In 2008, he founded his business Scratching Post Solutions. He received the 2011 Distinguished Achievement Award from Tufts University. He is also a freelance writer, and has profiled numerous athletes, politicians, celebrities, and artists. In 2012, Savicki became the spokesperson for National Mobility Awareness Month.
During the Games, he mentors fellow Veterans and wheelchair athletes sharing his experience and knowledge of adaptive sports with them.
Congratulations to Mike Savicki, the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games’ Spirit of the Games Award recipient.
Austin Burchard takes a big swing at the tennis ball and wack! it sails squarely across the net. A sweet smile of satisfaction lights up the 44-year-old U.S. Army Specialist’s face.
Austin joined a group of about 50 Veterans on the courts at Hillsborough Community College July 17 for a morning tennis exhibition, one of two non-competitive events held during the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
“Tennis is fun and helps with agility. You really have to push yourself to get across the court,” he says. Pushing himself is something the Tampa resident knows a lot about. He has competed in several Wheelchair Games after undergoing extensive recovery and rehabilitation from serious injuries caused by a gunshot wound while on duty in a gun turret in Afghanistan in March 2009.
Nick Bollettieri is focused on teaching others the value of hard work and determination. A sports celebrity known throughout the tennis world, he has coached to greatness legends like Agassi, Becker, Courier, Jankovic, Rios, Seles, Sharapova, and Venus and Serena Williams. On July 16, the spry, 81-year-old, former U.S. Army paratrooper took time out of his busy schedule to present medals to wheelchair athletes competing during the Games.
“I would like to see tennis become a competitive event at the Wheelchair Games,” Bollerttieri says. “The more competitive the sport, the more exciting it gets. I’ve judged champions… comeback athletes. I put (disabled) Veterans in the same category. These athletes have come through the threshold. They didn’t throw in the flag. No matter what cards they’ve been dealt, they’ll make the winning hand.”
National coaches from the U.S. Tennis Association were on hand during the tennis exhibition to teach novice wheelchair athletes the basics of the adaptive sport and to help those more experienced with their technique. Tennis pro Paul Walker of the USTA coaching staff says you can find tennis everywhere—and there are hundreds of programs for the physically disabled in communities nationwide.
“Tennis is a great, life-long sport. One of our goals here today is to plug these Veterans into the tennis programs in the communities they live in,” he says.
And along the water route a warning sign: “Danger: Do Not Feed” -- the alligators, that is.
The setting was steamy Lake Seminole, Florida on July 14 and the participants, all U.S. military Veterans who have suffered spinal or other injuries, were excited to strap on their skis for the very first adaptive water skiing exhibition event in the history of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
“An absolutely thrilling experience,” said U.S. Army Veteran Margaret Mitchell, 62, a member of the team representing Great Britain. “Our trainers made us feel totally comfortable and explained just how we would do it. I wasn’t nervous at all.”
UCANSKI2 , a local ski club for people with disabilities, sponsored the event and together with staff from the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, helped 50 Veterans during the day-long event experience the thrill of water skiing—some for the very first time.
“Awesome,” grinned Angie Lupe. It was her 3rd Wheelchair Games, but her first time up on water skis and she was on her own for two minutes without any assistance—quite an achievement for the 37-year-old U.S. Army Veteran from Albany, N.Y.
Angie wasn’t the only one excited to try the sport. The adaptive water ski event was wildly popular among the wheelchair athletes, according to event officials, who said the 50 available slots were snatched up during the first three days of registration for the Games.
Jamie Kaplan, a recreational therapist at James A. Haley, has been involved with adaptive water skiing for the last six years. He said that besides how much fun they had, the sport helps Veterans move forward in their rehabilitation.
“This is about teaching life-long lessons. It’s not just something they’re going to do just once. They’re progressing, taking it to the next level. We’re all equal in the water."
TAMPA, Fla. -- On release, Dave Nelson Jr's bowling ball doesn't drop to the floor so much as dart there. The sharp thud it makes is nearly oxymoronic, reverberating across the wood-striped lane with a crispness that draws attention as his body juts right, and then springs back left.
Nelson, bowler #560 in the 2013 National Veterans Wheelchair Games, holds a pose as the ball races down the alley. The pose is a common flourish among bowlers who are normally bedecked in cross-colored bowling shoes, but Nelson wears an Asics running shoe on his right foot instead. He has no need for a left shoe.
Nelson, from Omaha, Neb., is an accomplished bowler. His equipment is top shelf, his demeanor pleasantly competitive, and his aim on the alley is clean and accurate. Heady compliments perhaps for a man missing his left leg above the knee, but its clear he doesn't need it to put a hurting on a game of ten pins.
"I've been bowling about six years and my style is all about practice and repetition," said Nelson. "The way I do it is simply what I prefer; everyone has their own way of throwing and spinning the ball."
Watching Nelson approach the foul line it's easy to see that excellence is part of his preference. He is all smiles but his eyes tell a different story as he spins the ball from right to left hand, peering from beneath eyelids narrowed with a fixed, concentrated gaze. The ball comes to a rest in his grasp seconds before his muscular right arm swings back. His eyes fix on the front pin, and regardless of his body's movement Nelson's head and gaze remain immobile, boring a hole into the head pin as the ball races forward to strike the mark. More than 95% of the time that's exactly where it strikes, an impressive percentage even smart weapons have yet to achieve.
"My technique includes moving my right leg and foot over to the chair's left forward wheel, which keeps (the chair) from yawing when I bowl," Nelson said, demonstrating the foot hold he uses on his bowling chair. The chair has no hand guard on the right side, a modification that came from experience learned the hard way.
"I was in a tournament in Las Vegas and rolling for the championship were I only needed a couple pins in the last frame, and I bounced the ball off my right hand guard rim and it ricocheted into the gutter," Nelson said with a rueful grin. "I took the rim off after that one."
Sitting just forward of his lane during his match I watch Dave's assault on a three-pin split that clogs the right side of the lane after his first throw. His release is incredibly smooth yet the ball tears down the middle, and then ever so slightly swings to the right. The pins never stood a chance and as I look back at Dave I catch a wink and a smile; he knew they were toast before the ball left his hand.
As he rolls back to the bench his opponent, bowler #207, has already moved forward on Nelson's left, and he brings his chair to a slow roll to watch. Bowler Terry Rock and Nelson are pretty much neck-in-neck on the scoreboard, yet their styles are very different. Setting up in the middle of the lane Rock brings the ball nearly to his chin on the right side while peering downward and seemingly seeing the pins through the top of his head, the mark of a man used to envisioning a target before him. Rock's swing and release are smooth, very smooth as though the word has way too many o's in it. The ball spins upon release enough to centrifuge blood into plasma as it bears down on the pins. They scatter on impact, and I'm left with the impression that the ball is still spinning as the return machine grabs at it to spit it back up the alley.
Rock, who hails from the Cedar Point area of Ohio, threw as a competitive bowler until 1995 when a car accident changed the technique of his game. After some recovery time Rock went back to bowling, joining the American Wheelchair Bowling Association and working toward becoming a scratch bowler from his specially modified bowling chair.
"There's a few wheelchair bowlers that have rolled 300 games (perfect games) and Dave and guys like him push me to improve my game," Rock said, stroking his ever-present companion dog Bob, who has seen more travel miles with Rock than some commercial pilots.
Like Nelson Rock uses a wheelchair to wreak havoc on bowling alleys but to say he is confined to it is a gross misstatement. Rock's chair is as much a part of his game as his good right arm and sharp eye, and he uses all three to great effect in the art of ten pins.
"Defining an effective one-arm swing isn't easy, but I love the game and am determined to work at it," Rock said. "It gives me the chance to not only challenge myself but also to work with kids who have similar challenges; it's my chance to give back to the game."
Coming up on the tenth frame Rock has extended a good 30 pin lead on Nelson with a late frame nine-pin roll. His pick-up attempt goes just left of the pin, one of the few lucky ones that managed to get away today. He and Nelson slap hands as Nelson makes his way forward for a final try at a rally.
The smile is back but so is that very sharp gaze, and three rolls later Nelson has scored two strikes and nine pins in the final frame, moving him just ahead of Rock with the final roll. The two champions shake hands, as they have done many times before in supporting AWBA across the country and during a combined 13 NVRGs.
And although I didn't see it, I'm sure that knowing wink and smile were the last things the pins saw before hurtling into the backstop.
The 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games kicked off its first athletic event today as hand cyclists took to the streets of downtown Tampa. Seventy-four participants pumped and pushed themselves as they competed in the 5K or 10K, depending on their classification. Some Veterans have been competing in the hand cycling event for years; others were here for the first time.
“It’s awesome, fun and it gives us purpose,” said Navy Veteran David Nelson. “We are competitive, but at the same time we take care of each other during the event.”
Nelson, who is from the Omaha VA Medical Center, has been competing in the event for six years. He will be turning 51 this week, but age will never hold him back as he continues to do what he loves. Even with a recent shoulder surgery, Nelson fought hard for his 3rd place finish and was proud of the accomplishment.
One novice competitor, Marine Veteran Justin Gaertner from Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, finished 1st in the 10k and 2nd in the Race for the Yellow Jersey top 10 cycling event. Ben Thomlinson, a 23-year-old Marine Veteran and team mate, rounded out the field as the youngest competitor in the event.
Winning the overall hand cycling event, and donning the inaugural yellow jersey, was Army Veteran John Christenson from the Minneapolis VA Health Care System. The 50-year-old Christenson has been competing and winning against Veterans half his age for more than a decade.
It’s not just about the Veterans who win the events, the NVWGs are also about those heroes who overcome adversity and embrace challenge. When 51 year old Army Veteran Tracey Minter was the last cyclist to reach the turn-around point, and was asked if she wanted to stop, her reply was “I’m not going to quit,” and she meant it. She pushed herself and made it to the finish line smiling the whole way.
The 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games kicked off July 13 by introducing the Wheelchair Games to the Tampa community which is hosting the event this year. The Games, which run here through July 18, are presented each year by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA). The is the second time the Games have been held in Florida; Miami hosted the event in 1991.
The National Veterans Wheelchair Games showcase some of the world’s greatest wheelchair athletes. Athletes will compete in 18 different sports, including archery, air guns, basketball, bowling, field events, hand cycling, nine-ball, a motorized wheelchair relay, power soccer, quad rugby, softball, swimming, table tennis, track, trapshooting, weightlifting and wheelchair slalom. This year, there are also exhibition events in tennis and for the first time, adaptive water skiing.
Dr. Robert Petzel, VA Undersecretary of Health; Bill Lawson, President of the Paralyzed Veterans of America; and City of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn were featured speakers during the Kick Off event which offered a preview of what the Games are all about and provided a glimpse of what the week has in store. There was also an exciting exhibition of wheelchair basketball with Mayor Buckhorn, local media and leaders from the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa testing their skills against experienced wheelchair athletes.
““Throughout the week, you will have a chance to see incredible athletes pushing themselves and each other beyond what they ever thought possible—whether on the basketball court or competing in track and field, quad rugby, or any of the other events. In doing so, they are “re-defining” their capabilities and inspiring all of us to bring out the best in ourselves and each other,” said Dr. Petzel.
“I want to encourage the entire community to come out to the Tampa Convention Center and other venues around the city to support our Veterans. They are here not only for the competition, but to showcase the determination, spirit, and extraordinary capabilities of America’s Veterans,” he said.
Other highlights of the Wheelchair Games include Opening Ceremonies to be held July 13th at 6 p.m. at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. The event will be highlighted by the triumphant entrance of wheelchair athletes from 46 states, Puerto Rico and Great Britain. Remarks by local, state and national officials plus patriotic music, presentation of the Colors by the American Veterans Amputee Support Team Color Guard—the only amputee color guard in the U.S--and the traditional torch lighting ceremony are all part of the exciting, patriotic pageantry planned for the event.