37th NVWG Opening Ceremony

The 37th National Veterans Wheelchair Games have kicked off in Cincinnati

By John Groth

Ken Force hangs out outside of the ballroom at the NVWG opening ceremony. (Photo by John Groth)

Before the 2017 National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) opening ceremonies started, Ken Force positioned himself in a totally different vantage point Monday night.

Instead of wheeling in with the California team like he usually does during the parade of athletes, the 61-year-old United States Army veteran stationed himself right by the entrance door and watched all of the teams come through the Grand Ballroom of the Cincinnati Convention Center.

“It was really quite eye-opening to see all of the different competitors in a stream like that,” says Force, a T1 complete paraplegic who sustained a C7 injury during a surfing accident in Hawaii on April 1, 1986. “But it also gave me the opportunity to pick out the faces of the people that I’ve known over the years and to give them a hello and to give them a little applause and that was kind of cool, too.”

Force offered his sincere appreciation for the more than 600 wheelchair athletes from the United States, Puerto Rico and Great Britain who will compete in this week’s NVWG, co-sponsored by Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in Cincinnati. The NVWG run Tuesday through Saturday and feature more than 19 sports for wheelchair athletes.

Force watched as athletes entered to color-changing spotlights and fans waving plastic toy wands with red, white and blue light-up stars. But his biggest treat might have been watching the hometown Ohio (Buckeye Chapter) wheelchair athletes roll in with the Cincinnati Emerald Society Police And Fire Pipes and Drums group playing Scottish music ahead of them. Later, the kilted bagpipers played the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard military hymns.

PVA National President David Zurfluh gives his speech during the opening ceremony at the NVWG. (Photo by Courtney Verrill)

It moved Force, who served from August 1974 to March 1976, more than he expected.

“They started their pipes and it was like so rousing and inspirational and then the Ohio team came in and followed them right into the arena and I was like ‘wow, man!” That was the first time in the I don’t know how many games I’ve been to, over 20, that I really got that emotionally moved during the opening ceremony,” says Force, a Garden Grove, Calif., resident. “The other time was my first year in New Orleans in 1990 because, as one of the speakers had mentioned up on the podium today, he said, ‘Think back to your first time. Remember?’ And I did, and I remember how enthusiastic and how bright-eyed I was about the whole thing. And that’s kind of the way I felt today.”

PVA National President David Zurfluh was the speaker who said that to the athletes and urged long-timers to mentor the more than 100 first-time athletes participating in this year’s games.

This is Zurfluh’s 10th NVWG, but his first as PVA national president. He was named national president during PVA’s 71st National Convention in National Harbor, Md., in May and took office July 1, replacing Al Kovach Jr., who had served as PVA national president from July 2014 to June 2017.

Zurfluh showed them a five-minute long video with various high-profile actors and actresses such as Ryan Gosling, Jack Black and Kate Walsh and even former President George W. Bush offering their encouragement and support. And Zurfluh also asked veteran wheelchair athletes to do him a favor this week and remember that first time they participated in the NVWG and reach out and mentor new athletes, since that first year can be overwhelming.

“Show them how it’s done and give them the support to get through this week and to leave thinking to how they can make it to Orlando, the site of the next year’s Games,” says Zurfluh. “And remember you’ve all done this once. So let’s continue to pay it forward for those who join us now and those who have yet to experience the life-changing impact of the Games.”

It’s that mentorship that’s important. VA Interim Deputy Secretary Scott Blackburn has seen it firsthand with his friend and PVA New England Chapter President Wayne Ross.

Blackburn met Ross in Scituate, Mass. Blackburn was 6 years old, while Ross was a freshman at Norwich University in Vermont at the time.

Blackburn said both their fathers were FBI agents in the Boston FBI, and the two children kept up a close friendship as they grew older.

But in 1996, Ross, an Air Force veteran, had an accident and sustained a C6 injury, leaving him a quadriplegic. Earlier this year, they caught up again at the National Disabled Winter Sports Clinic in March in Snowmass, Colo.

“He was telling me how much these events fuel him and drive him to do what he does,” Blackburn says. “Seeing him mentor veterans at the Winter Sports Clinic just as he will today that are coming through for the first time, that’s what it’s all about. That’s what it’s continuing to thrive and continuing to give back and continuing to serve.”

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