Let the Youth Rise Up!

US Marine veteran Thomas Vanderlaan with friend "Jerry" during the 2012 NVWG in Richmond, VA. Photo Wells – UroMed

Marine Veteran takes the National Veterans Wheelchair Games by storm.

With his cheerful demeanor and all-American good looks, Corporal Thomas Vanderlaan  of the US Marine Corps was hard to miss at the 2012 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Richmond, VA.  In his first year as a competitor, 22-year-old Vanderlaan was the youngest athlete enrolled in the 2012 Games, but he greeted new and old friends like a seasoned pro.
“My number one goal in competing in the Games this year was to meet other disabled vets and learning as much as I could from them.  I had never considered many of the sports that I competed in this week, like quad rugby, before coming to Richmond,” Vanderlaan says.

US Marine veteran Thomas Vanderlaan competes during the bench press events at the 2012 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Richmond, VA. Photo Wells – UroMed

While watching Vanderlaan dive into quad rugby, no one would have ever guessed it was his first time on the court.

“Nope, it’s true. I had never done it before, and I was a little apprehensive before my first game. But it’s a whole new world here, not just getting on the court to compete, but also getting on the plane for a first time post-injury, traveling with my team – the San Diego Beachcombers, and many other things that opened my eyes to so many possibilities,” Vanderlaan explains.
Vanderlaan just crossed his first year milestone of spinal-cord injury, and May 30th was his official date of medical discharge from the Marines. Before his SCI, Vanderlaan played football for the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar team in the Camp Pendleton football league.  A team practice scrimmage turned his world upside down last year when one play went terribly wrong.

“We had just put our helmets on for the first practice and the minute my facemask hit the ground I knew that I had a serious injury,” Vanderlaan shares.  The on-field accident broke his neck, leaving the larger-than-life, six-foot-seven-inch athlete with a C5 spinal cord injury and complete quadriplegia.
That’s when Kelli Kaliszewski, a recreation therapist at the VA Medical Center of San Diego stepped into Vanderlaan’s life.

“Kelly put a boot in my ass. She got me motivated and helped me get out here competing again,” Vanderlaan says. The support he’s received at the VA along with friendships found on the Beachcombers team have strengthened Vanderlaan as much as his daily physical therapy.
“My family lives up in Northern California, but I’m not leaving the Southern Cal weather anytime soon,” he says. “ I’m a California boy through and through and I love the weather here.”   
With a slight grin and chuckle as he talks, Vanderlaan is a charmer and a natural motivator for friends who surround him.  His buddy Jerry, a fellow Beachcomber, says, “I’ve never seen anyone take to these Games as quickly as Thomas has. His spirit is unbelievable and he’s gone after these sports with the best of them.”
Seven members of the Beachcombers team attended the PVA Games this year, all competing in different sports. In addition to quad rugby, Vanderlaan competed in the archery and quad bench press events.
“For me, obviously rugby is the way to go. I love the competition within that sport,” Vanderlaan says. “Prior to my SCI, I was an avid archer and I lifted weights three hours a day.  I still work out aggressively, training with my physical therapist three days a week at the VA in San Diego. That’s why I entered those competitions as well at this year’s Games.”
Beyond the medals awarded this week in Richmond, Vanderlaan has already captured the biggest prize that the Games offer.  

“I realized in being here that just because you don’t think you can do something, doesn’t mean you can’t.  And if I was to share any advice with a newly-injured veteran, that’s what I would explain,” he says.
Keep an eye out for more news on Thomas Vanderlaan, he’s an up-and-coming athlete with a long future ahead of him. We have no doubt that he’ll grace the pages of many magazines for years to come.


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