Challenges and Rewards

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games — the world’s largest annual wheelchair-sports event — is a prime example of sports as a rehabilitation tool

Before his spinal-cord injury, Rory A. Cooper, PhD, was a soldier and an avid runner. A Paralympian and director of the Human Engineering Research Laboratories in Pittsburgh, he is a big advocate of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

“I’ve competed in every NVWG since 1983, except for Puerto Rico,” Cooper says. “I’ve won at least five medals in each one but don’t have an actual count.”

In 1988, Cooper was a bronze medalist at the Paralympic Games in Seoul, Republic of Korea. The International Paralympic Committee presented the Sports Science Award — IPC’s highest honor for science — to Cooper in May 2013.

And it all started while he was in rehab.

Since 1980, when the Department of Veterans Affairs established a Recreation Therapy Service, VA therapists have used wheelchair sports as a therapeutic tool for treating veterans with disabilities.

In the feature article “Fringe Benefits” (SPORTS ’N SPOKES, March 2013), Cooper discusses the importance of adaptive sports during and after rehab:

“When you were in rehab, were you introduced to wheelchair sports? Did the therapists try to get you involved in activities that got you out and about?

“Sports are an important modality in rehabilitation and should be incorporated into the lives of wheelchair users. They provide many benefits to the health, well-being, quality of life and community re-integration of wheelchair users.

“During rehab, sports help to teach mobility skills, build strength, improve balance, and enhance coordination. All these translate into greater mobility and health during daily wheelchair activities. Further, wheelchair sports teach clinicians and chair users the importance of a properly fitted wheelchair and learning how to use it.

“Daily use of a manual chair is insufficient for most individuals to maintain or improve their stamina. The typical manual-chair user pushes his or her wheelchair between 500 and 1,500 meters per day, about a mile maximum. This is over a 12-hour period and at speeds of about two miles per hour.

“In contrast, during a one-hour wheelchair-basketball or rugby game, each player travels about 1,500 to 3,000 meters, or one to two miles. Players move at higher speeds, in the range of three to five miles per hour.

“Thus, participating in wheelchair basketball or rugby can more than double activity in a single day. This helps build stamina and burn calories — and it’s fun.

“Never underestimate fun. The more people participate in activities they choose and enjoy, the higher they tend to report their qualify of life as being.

“Before I was injured, I was a soldier and avid runner. I competed in 10K races, marathons, and in track and field events. I was a competent soldier and a fairly talented runner. One day this changed when I became spinal-cord injured.

“While in rehab, I set the goal of pushing my chair one mile without stopping. After achieving this, I set my sights on a 10K. Racing chairs were not like they are today; we used chairs much like the ultralight chairs people use every day now.

“I started near the back and was one of the last finishers. As I got in better shape and racing chairs improved, I went from starting in the back of the pack and finishing near the back to starting in the back and finishing in the front.

“Through this progress, my attitude began to change toward myself and that of the people around me. Later, I was invited to start at the front of the pack as were other wheelchair racers who were making their mark on the sport. We began to see ourselves as athletes, and so did the runners.

“Wheelchair sports are lifelong activities. It’s important to find one that is enjoyable and to carve out the time to participate in it regularly. Although I have been using a wheelchair for more than 30 years, I still enjoy marathons and even an occasional swim meet.

“Staying in shape, meeting other racers, and being part of the event still bring me enjoyment.”

And that’s what the National Veterans Wheelchair Games is all about.


Created by VA, the first NVWG took place in 1981, in Richmond, Va., and had 74 participants. By 1985, the growing size, complexity and resources needed for the Games presented a daunting challenge to VA medical centers hosting the program. (When the Games returned to Richmond in 2012, some 540 veterans were registered.) Recognizing that most of the athletes were paralyzed veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) offered to become a co-presenter. To help obtain resources needed to host this huge national event, PVA began recruiting support from corporations.

VA and PVA are committed to the rehabilitation of veterans with disabilities through this event and will continue their efforts to ensure the Games are challenging and rewarding.

According to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, “The National Veterans Wheelchair Games provide an incredible opportunity for veterans who have been t raining and competing all year to showcase their talents on the world’s stage. VA is committed to world-class care for our nation’s veterans, and we encourage them to use adaptive sports as a key component of their physical rehabilitation. These athletes, more so than anyone, know the healing power of competition and camaraderie that this event provides.”


Seize the Day!

“Seize the Day in Tampa Bay!” is the theme of the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games, scheduled for July 13–18, 2013. These Games will include competitions in 18 different events such as swimming, basketball, table tennis, archery and wheelchair slalom, which is a timed obstacle course. The athletes compete in all events against others with similar athletic ability, competitive experience or age.

The Games are open to all U.S. military veterans who use wheelchairs for sports competition due to spinal-cord injury, neurological conditions, amputations, or other mobility impairments. The public is invited to attend any of the sports competitions throughout the week, and admission is free.

Cooper plans to compete in swimming and slalom. He and the other athletes and spectators will find that the main hub for this year’s Games activities is The Tampa Bay Convention Center, a world-class 600,000-square-foot event space located along the Riverwalk in the heart of Tampa.

The James Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa is host medical center, and the Host PVA Chapter is Florida Gulf Coast (

Up-to-date information is available on the official NVWG website,

The following organizations guide the competition and can provide information to help prepare participants to excel at the Games:

Blaze Sports America (




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