Surf’s Up!

While the National Veterans Golden Age Games strive to offer competition for every level of ability, it is the camaraderie that makes this event so important.

As the sun rose high over Waikiki Beach, you could almost touch the beat of excitement as veterans from across the country paddled out for their first outrigger canoe experience at the 25th National Veterans Golden Age Games.

But Jerry Braun blocked it all out as she left her wheelchair and was strapped into an adaptive canoe. “All I did was listen to the cadence of the paddler calling,” Jerry says. “Paddles up. Paddles in. And we kept the rhythm.”

Working in harmony, Jerry’s crew of female veterans bested her husband Bill’s crew in the outrigger canoe exhibition at the Games, held in Honolulu, May 26–31. Jerry and Bill Braun, who have spinal-cord injuries, were among the 253 veterans who sailed through the waters off the coast of Hawaii, and the 826 who competed in 14 sporting events at the world’s largest veteran sports event for seniors.

“I’ve done kayaking and I’ve done regular canoeing, but this took a lot more teamwork,” says Bill. “I worked in small teams during the Vietnam War, and you had to depend on everybody. It was the same thing with the canoeing.”

That is the beauty of the adventure for them.

Jerry and Bill Braun train year-round and have become mainstays at events like the National Veterans Golden Age Games. They took home eight medals from this year's event in Honolulu.

Competitors and Teammates

Jerry and Bill have competed against each other in adaptive sports since they met 14 years ago. And they’ve been one heck of a team in life since they married in 1998.

“She got me into it,” laughs Bill, leaving you unsure if he’s talking about sports or marriage. But he’s obviously happy with both.

“It (sports) keeps us young,” he adds while describing some of the hundreds of medals that hang in their fitness room at home. The Brauns compete in track and field, swimming, and power racing at multiple regional and national events. They have even participated in the National Senior Games, also known as the Senior Olympics. This year at the Golden Age Games they won a total of eight medals in shot put, discus, swimming, and bowling proving their regimen of year-round training is paying off.

So is their other “team sport.” Jerry and Bill are devoted to involving others with disabilities in adaptive sports. They work with all age groups in their Del Rio, Tex., community, teaching them to throw, race, and experience life again.

“It’s very important that you get to these kids when they are young or older ones early on,” muses Jerry. “There isn’t anything you can’t do as long as you find a way to adapt it. It’s giving up before you find it that makes it hard.”

Both know what it is to want to give up. But they keep each other and those around them motivated by volunteering numerous hours training up-and-coming athletes.

“It’s great seeing new ones start out,” says Jerry. “This year we have a new competitor who mows his grass [while using a] manual chair to stay in shape. We don’t expect you to win every time but we expect you to try, and we’ll give as many hours as necessary to help you.”

And while regular exercise and competition is their thing, the Brauns understand it’s really about finding an activity that keeps each one engaged in life.

“If you don’t like sports, you might like fishing or trapshooting or air rifle,” adds Bill. “We like to bring people out of the house and keep them active. You just need to try something and find what you like.”

More than Medals

While the Golden Age Games strive to offer competition for every level of ability among senior veteran athletes, it is the camaraderie that makes this—the largest of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA’s) six national competitions—so important.

“You never know who you’re going to meet up with,” Jerry says with a smile. This year she found a veteran she played ball with as a young girl. “It’s those friendships and the camaraderie we all share that brings us back to the Golden Age Games year after year.”

Hosting the 25th annual Games in Hawaii during the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor was also memorable. Most of the veteran athletes—many of whom served in World War II—visited the historic site to pay tribute to our fallen heroes.

“It’s unbelievable how clear and how blue the water is,” Bill reflects. “When we went out to the U.S.S. Arizona you could actually see the bottom of the ship. It was very moving.”

Their Next Adventure

With beautiful memories of outrigger canoeing still floating through their minds, Jerry and Bill settled on their next quest: adaptive sailing! They plan to go from the seas to sky diving by the end of 2011. And they’ll be back at the National Veterans Golden Age Games in St. Louis in 2012, likely taking gold in many competitions once again.

The National Veterans Golden Age Games is the premier senior adaptive rehabilitation program in the United States and is the only national multi-event sports and recreational seniors’ competition program designed to improve the quality of life for all older veterans, including those with a wide range of abilities and disabilities. The Games serve as a qualifying event for competition in the National Senior Games in a number of competitive events every even-numbered year. VA, Help Hospitalized Veterans, and the Veterans Canteen Service sponsor the National Veterans Golden Age Games.


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