Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s first official competition team braved grueling training hours, long, cross-country flights, jet lag and even a mama bear and her cubs on the golf course to come home victorious from the 2019 National Veterans Golden Age Games.
Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s first official competition team braved grueling training hours, long, cross-country flights, jet lag and even a mama bear and her cubs on the golf course to come home victorious from the 2019 National Veterans Golden Age Games, held in Anchorage, Alaska, June 5 - 10. The VA-sponsored games encourage active living and continued socialization for Veterans ages 55 and older and attracted more than 700 Veteran athletes in this, their 33rd year.
The three-Veteran Team Charleston, comprised of Air Force Veterans Rae Carlers and Richard Ligon, Navy Veteran Terry Stewart, and their coach, Charleston VAMC Physical Therapist Steven Giammona, amassed a whopping nine medals and three ribbons at the 2019 games. The final medal count after a week of stiff competition stood at five gold, three silver, one bronze, and one each of fourth, fifth and sixth place ribbons.
“For having an official team for the first time, maybe we had something to prove,” Giammona said. “I really think we made a great showing!”
While the medals were a nice souvenir for first-time participant Terry Stewart, the bigger prize was her improved health and how the games reignited a competitive spirit that had been long extinguished.
“A year and a half ago I was just not in a good place,” said the former Navy hospital corpsman, who has had two knee replacements, a shoulder reconstruction and struggles with fibromyalgia. “I was depressed and on meds and everything else – couldn’t even get out of my recliner. But the games gave me a goal to work toward. My doctors helped get me off the pain pills and then cleared me to start training. It’s turned my life around.”
In the process of preparing for the games, Stewart’s drive to heal herself through fitness led to her quitting smoke, tapering off opioids and losing weight. Healthier and stronger, she placed in each of her six events, including taking gold in golf, 9-ball and free throws. She also earned silver in swimming breaststroke, bronze in swimming backstroke and fourth place in swimming freestyle.
Stewart came to the games, in part, at the encouragement of her friend Rae Carlers who attended for the second time and also uses fitness to combat pain.
“It was such a wonderful experience,” Carlers said of her first competition in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last year. “When I came back I wanted to tell everyone about it to get them involved.”
And she did. Carlers was instrumental in helping form Team Charleston and feels the comradery developed by the small group allowed her to perform better on the court, lanes and field. Carlers earned a gold medal in pickleball, an improvement from bronze in 2018, a silver medal in bowling and a sixth-place ribbon in powerwalking, a new sport in her repertoire.
The team’s hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, is well-known for its southern hospitality, but, according to Richard Ligon, the friendliness of the locals here is nothing compared to what he experienced at the Alaska Golden Age Games.
“I’ll tell you, the medals are secondary,” Ligon, who won a gold medal in 9-ball, a silver medal in horseshoes and took fifth in golf, said. “More than anything else, I was overwhelmed by the kindness we were shown by all the volunteers and athletes and the people in Anchorage. I met a lot of good, good people from all over. It’s left an impression on me for the rest of my life.”
According to Giammona, the team’s coach and mentor, that’s what the games are all about.
“It’s a holistic approach to health care,” he said. “The goal is to make exercising and stretching a part of the athletes’ daily routine and to keep them out and active among their peers. There’s really no better medicine.”
See more of Team Charleston’s experience at the 2019 National Veterans Golden Age Games in the recap video here.
For 2019 medal results and more information on the National Veterans Golden Age Games, including dates and registration windows for next year’s event in Madison, Wisconsin, visit this website.