Pushing Through the Slalom

US Marine veteran Brett Smith works his way through an incline/decline obstacle during the slalom event at the 35th annual NVWG. Photo Christopher DiVirgilio

Wheelchair course among the most popular event during the NVWG

When Brett Smith first saw the slalom course at the 35th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), his face went aghast.

He wasn’t sure he’d make it through.

Among what he had to wheel through inside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center included a rubber band/bungee cord ladder, a ramp with a TempurPedic bed at the bottom, a higher ramp which he had to hold himself steady sideways before going down and multiple curb cuts and bumps to wheel over.

“I was like oh, [darn]. It was a lot harder than I thought,” says Smith, a 31-year-old from Farmington, Conn.

U.S. Navy veteran Frank Ellis works his way through an incline/decline obstacle during the slalom event at the 35th annual NVWG. Photo Christopher DiVirgilio

Just 11 months ago, Smith didn’t think he’d stand a chance of finishing a feat like this. A Marine Corps veteran, he sustained a C6 injury last May after a diving accident at his brother’s wedding in Rhode Island.

He heard about the NVWG through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Health Care System – West Roxbury Campus. He’s one of the more than 100 newly injured veterans participating in the event in Dallas.

Smith struggled with a stepladder and the rubber band/bungee cord ladder for his class, getting stuck in the cords, but managed to untangle his chair out of them and wheelie out. 

“I kept on catching my front casters and my feet in both obstacles. [I used] brute strength,” Smith says. “It boosts my confidence incredibly [to finish it].”

He wouldn’t have had the chance had he not Michael Gilbault not recruited him. Gilbault, who lives in Attleboro, Mass., saw Smith in therapy and encouraged him to go to the NVWG. But he didn’t know whether he’d show up until he saw him Wednesday afternoon.

“This was a lot of fun,” says Smith. “[It was an] eye-opener of what I can do for my ability now.”

Gilbault hopes convince Smith to take over as catcher for him on his NVWG softball team, too.

An Air Force veteran, Gilbault, who was injured and sustained C6 and C7 injuries in a car accident in September 1995, has competed in the NVWG every year since 1998 in Pittsburgh. He actually had a similar experience in 2004 when he recruited an athlete named Peter Moore.

Moore didn’t know the events at all and Gilbault called up the national office and signed up him for slalom. He told Moore it was like an obstacle course with a wheelchair and that he’d love it. Moore lived out in the boonies and Gilbault knew Moore could practice, push over grass and tree roots and jump curbs.

Even though Moore was unsure once he saw the slalom, the trick worked. He won silver medal in slalom. Later that night, Gilbault says Moore realized why slalom helps you.

“We were in St. Louis and wanted to go down to where the clubs were. [It was] freaking big hills and cobblestone. We called it cobble wobble. And we were going down and he’s like, ‘man that slalom course is nothing compared to this.’ I’m like why do you think they make you do the slalom course? It’s not showing off,” Gilbault says. “These are developing skills you need in everyday life to overcome obstacles. Wheelies ain’t showing off.”

Frank Ellis agrees. For the Navy veteran, the slalom focuses on persevering to complete a challenge.

“It’s not just a physical challenge, it’s a mental one as well. You have to stay alert the whole event and think about what you’re doing at each station,” says the 44-year-old Ellis, who sustained a C7 injury after a motor vehicle accident on Jan. 14, 2007. “It’s meant to challenge you both physically and mentally. “

Ellis has competed in slalom three out of the seven years he’s attended the NVWG. The newly added bungee cords this year tripped him up a little, too. But he acknowledged the key is to never give up.

“With these obstacles versus the ones we have out on the streets, you have to look at it. We do the walkthrough first. It kind of gives us an idea of what the course is and you think about it then. You have to look at your obstacle, whatever the obstacle is in front of you, and figure out how you can do it individually,” says Ellis, who served from 1987-1993. “Everybody here has a different set of skills, a different set of strengths and you have to utilize that personal strength inside you to get through that particular obstacle.”

For more information on the veteran games, visit Wheelchair Games online.


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