U.S. Army veteran Steve Holcomb at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games opening ceremony. Photo Kerry Randolph
Speakers Highlight 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games
Emotions ended up getting the best of Steve Holcomb at the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) opening ceremony.
Speaking in front of the large crowd at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, the Olympic gold-medal winning bobsledder and Army veteran choked up a handful of times Monday night.
He’d endured one troubling time. He went from being declared legally blind with 20-1000 vision that led him to a deep, dark depression and a suicide attempt at age 26 to having a life-changing experimental corrective procedure which gave him 20-20 vision and changed his life a year later.
Since then, the now 33-year-old has only won a 2010 Vancouver Olympic four-man bobsled gold and 2014 Sochi Olympic four-man bobsled bronze, along a 2007 two-man world championship medal. He also became the first American man to win the two-man bobsled World Cup title and helped lead the four-man U.S. bobsled team to its first gold medal in 62 years.
“I have a great quote I love to live by since [Muhammad Ali died],” said Holcomb, who grew up in Park City, Utah – only 40 minutes from Salt Lake City. “It is ‘only a person who knows what it’s like to be defeated can reach down the bottom of his own soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.’”
PVA National President Al Kovach Jr speaking at the opening ceremony fo the 2016 National Veterans Wheelchair Games. Photo Kerry Randolph
Holcomb has endured plenty of pain.
What he and other NVWG speakers wanted paralyzed veterans to know at this year’s Games, co-sponsored by Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) – was that they’re not alone and they have friendship and “a team” behind them.
The Games kicked off Monday and run through Saturday this week. Although there was no parade of athletes this year, there were some strong speakers – including Holcomb, PVA President Al Kovach Jr. and VA Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald.
PVA President Al Kovach reminded the more-than 600 athletes, including 120 first-timers, of the four words that they’ll learn the definition of at the Games: competition, sportsmanship, ability and friendship.
But his primary focus was on friendship Monday night.
In 1998, seven years after Kovach was paralyzed, he and a group of three others teamed up to do a 3,700-mile transcontinental paratriathlon, swimming, biking and cycling from New York City to Los Angeles. He was teamed with a woman who was blind and deaf, a man who had lost his legs a few years before that and a man with a severely compromised immune system that overexertion could have led to his death.
“A unit like ours had the deck stacked against us,” Kovach said.
But their families’ and friends’ support, along with the support of each other, helped them make it across the country.
“That’s because we depend on one another to achieve a common goal. That’s all the same that veterans who have come from all over the country to compete in these Games, this week, haven’t done it alone. They didn’t make it through the rehabilitation after injury alone. They had doctors. They had nurses. They had recreational and physical therapists. And to make it to the games they had coaches and those same nurses helping them train, motivate them and in some instances, help them raise the funds to get here.”
It’s people like family members, other athletes and military friends, physical therapists, nurses and doctors that paralyzed veterans need to lean on during their tough times.
McDonald is a University of Utah alumnus and said he’s here to help paralyzed veterans. Their injuries shouldn’t be an excuse to give up or stop competing but instead persevere.
“But there’s a larger purpose. That is defeat the stigma associated with disabilities. When you veteran athletes are competing, you send a very powerful message to every spectator, every sponsor, every therapist and every doctor. That is ‘I’ve triumphed over injuries,’” McDonald said. “You are living testaments to the healing power of adaptive sports and you show so many others who need to see it that you can strive, live and conquer.”
PVA Bayou Gulf States member Patrick Peterson still thought the opening ceremonies were fantastic.
Peterson is competing in his 15th NVWG and will participate in softball, wheelchair basketball, weightlifting and bowling.
He thought Holcomb’s story was inspiring and meaningful and that Kovach’s speech knocked a point home.
“Being able to hear some encouraging words from the president. That no matter what we’ve got to keep pushing. We’re all not the same, so we’re all going to have different obstacles to overcome. And you’ve got to keep pushing.”