The National Veterans Wheelchair Games came to Orlando this summer, and volunteers from the Rotary Club of Lake Mary helped make the event a smashing success.
Jimmy Green knows a thing or two about the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG). Of the 38 years the Games have been played, Jimmy has participated in 22 of them.
“I am drawn to these Games,” says Jimmy, who was one of 14 competitors in this year’s Games and represented the Central Florida chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), headquartered in Sanford. It was also the first time the Games were held in Orlando. Every year, Jimmy enjoys passing on his knowledge of the Games to the newbies and seeing his friends.
“I plan my summer around the Games,” Jimmy says. “It means something to me other than the competition. It’s like a 600-person reunion.”
Welcoming a record number of athletes, Orlando-area venues played host to the 38th annual NVWG, giving more than 600 paralyzed military veterans (from the United States, Puerto Rico, and even the United Kingdom) a chance to compete for medals and bragging rights in events ranging from wheelchair basketball to billiards and everything in between.
Hosted by the Central Florida PVA Chapter and the Orlando VA Medical Center, the Games offer wheelchair-bound military veterans not only an avenue of competition, but a week of respite, friendship, and self-reflection.
“The Games are different than other wheelchair events because these are as much therapeutic as they are competitive,” says John DeMauro, executive director of the PVA Central Florida Chapter and a member of the Rotary Club of Lake Mary. The PVA, founded in 1946, comprises 34 chapters throughout the United States representing more than 22,000 members. The 375-member local chapter began operations in 1979.
The Games, held in a different city each year to allow athletes the chance to travel and to introduce the Games to as many people as possible, are quite an undertaking for the hosting PVA chapter.
“We started this process four years ago by bidding for the Games,” says John. “We suspected these would be the largest Games to date because of our location here in Orlando.”
John was right. Due to the sheer size of the 2018 Games – a record 611 participants (including 250 first-timers) took part in 21 events – John and his staff of only two had their work cut out for them. In the end, more than 3,000 volunteers representing 64 subcommittees, combined with the generosity of sponsors, helped the multi-event sports and rehabilitation program go off without a hitch.
Service Above Self
Among those volunteers were dozens of Rotarians from the Lake Mary Club who rallied around John to keep the event running smoothly. The Rotarians’ service began bright and early on a Sunday morning as they welcomed veterans arriving at Orlando International Airport. Volunteers helped direct the vets through the airport, staffed a lively welcome center, and escorted the competitors to a fleet of handicap-accessible buses chartered for the event.
During the Games, Rotarians filled a number of roles to assist the competitors, and they were back at the airport when the Games were done to help the veterans get back home.
“We all were inspired from the time we greeted the athletes until we bid them farewell,” says Mike Vernon, a past president of the Rotary Club of Lake Mary who is slated to become governor of Central Florida’s Rotary District 6980 in 2020. “We were also privileged to get to know them as friends.”
Rotary International was a major sponsor of the Games, and the Central Florida Rotary district rallied volunteers from several other clubs to join the Lake Mary Rotarians. Playing even a small part in the Games’ success was a thrill for members of the Rotary Club of Lake Mary, who considered the volunteer opportunity a chance to fulfill Rotary’s motto of Service Above Self.
“We were uplifted by the competitors’ enthusiastic spirits, attitudes, athletic talents, hard work, dedication, and strength of character,” says Mike.
The Orange County Convention Center played host to most of the events, with local bowling alleys, golf courses, the Oviedo Aquatic Center, and other venues joining in. Among the 14 Central Floridians taking part this year, Steve Kirk was enjoying his third Games. A quadriplegic from the Vietnam era, Steve competed in bowling, boccia, motor rally, and air rifle. He has been involved with the local PVA for 16 years.
Sean Gibbs, local PVA vice president, participated in his 12th Games this year, his first dating back to 1996 in Seattle, Washington. Not only is he a veteran of the Games, Sean has turned his passion for handcycling into a career. As part of a program managed by the U.S. Olympics and the VA, Sean is being sponsored to train and compete nationwide in a quest to make the U.S. Paralympics Team.
“I have always been a racer,” says Sean. “I ran cross-country and track throughout high school, so it was an easy transition after my accident.” A motorcycle accident left Sean paralyzed from the waist down while stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. “I broke several ribs, punctured both lungs, and broke my back at T-8.”
In addition to handcycling, Sean tried his luck this year at bowling, air rifle, swimming, and various team events. And, like Jimmy, Sean enjoyed the camaraderie and helping newcomers learn the ropes.
“The Games to me are getting back to my roots with fellow athletic competitors,” Sean says. “It’s a homecoming for me. Plus, I help those who are new. It’s the cycle of the Wheelchair Games. You go in to learn and then you give back.”
Coincidentally, Jimmy, 49, also experienced his first Wheelchair Games in Seattle in 1996. Now serving as secretary at the Central Florida PVA, he was paralyzed in 1987 at age 18 as a passenger in an automobile while on active duty at Fort Lewis in Washington. This year, Jimmy participated in basketball, softball, various field events, nine-ball billiards, and archery (a new event this year). The “Vet Games,” as Jimmy calls them, have become a staple in his life.
“If you don’t see me at the Games, say a prayer,” Jimmy jokes, “because I am either dead or in the hospital.”
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