Competition is almost over, and some athletes are leaving with memories that will last a lifetime
By John Groth
James Tipton celebrates with the game winning ball, signed by all of his teammates, after Team X won the gold for wheelchair softball at the 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Orlando, Fla. on Friday, August 3, 2018. (Photo by Courtney Cooper)
James Tipton ended up with a game ball that he’ll treasure for a lifetime.
In his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) and first time playing softball in a wheelchair, the 52-year-old Air Force veteran has ended up with four medals, including a softball championship title Friday night inside Hall WD1 of the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. But even more special is the military family he now has and the championship game softball his team signed for him afterward.
Tipton scored a run and provided an inspirational boost to lead Team X (White) over Team Apollo (Black) 4-2 in Friday night’s wheelchair softball title game at the 38th NVWG, co-sponsored by Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Shortly after the game ended, PVA National Deputy Executive Director and Team X member Shaun Castle told everybody to sign the ball and that they were going to give it to Tipton before the championship ceremony.
“That was pretty emotional in itself because being a novice and the first time I’ve ever played softball in the chair to have the team, I didn’t expect it. They came over and threw the ball at me and I thought it was just another ball and I was getting ready to throw it and they said, ‘no, no, no, that’s the team ball. It’s yours,’” Tipton said. “It was pretty special because these guys kind of took me in and I didn’t even know that I was going to be able to play softball in this chair and I’ve played before and I was very athletic prior and I thought again that the chair was going to limit me and these guys boosted my ego by saying, ‘go play and give it your all and we’ll help you through it.’ They gave me a couple of ideas or hints and suggestions and I just went with it. And they said ‘man, you made us proud, you played hard, you did well, you know, you threw yourself out there and you gave it your all. You deserved it.’ And man, I was like it meant more being a novice, the friends I’ve made and this is my first time being here in the games ever and to get the ball, I mean the gold medal is amazing, but to get this ball signed by this team, this ball is really special.”
There was plenty of excitement with Friday’s events, which included wheelchair basketball, trap shooting, powerlifting and quad weightlifting, swimming, boccia ball, wheelchair softball, wheelchair track and power soccer.
Aaron Ruffin attempts to lift 315 pounds at the weightlifting competition at the 38th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Orlando, Fla. on Friday, August 3, 2018. (Photo by Courtney Cooper)
Tipton has had plenty during these games, participating in field events (javelin, discus and shot put), the adaptive three-hole golf exhibition, wheelchair basketball, wheelchair bowling (manual) and wheelchair softball and finished with three gold medals and one bronze. But Friday night’s medal and experience may have been the most special.
The Panama City, Fla., resident and PVA Bayou Gulf-States Chapter member sustained a spinal-cord injury in 2008 in South Dakota in an automobile accident when a woman ran a stop sign and the collision broke his back in two places, leaving him a paraplegic from the waist down. He served in the Air Force from 1985-2010 as a munitions superintendent and was a first sergeant his final seven years until he medically retired.
He’s struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, but getting a service dog, a 3 ½-year-old Great Pyrenees named Scooter, has helped him.
His first NVWG, though, has left him awestruck, amazed and grateful – for everyone in Orlando and his softball team. He acknowledged they helped make him.
“The friends I made here, to win a gold medal but to get this team and know the friends that I just made and the memories that this will have, it’s unbelievable,” Tipton said.
Aaron Ruffin also made some memories of his own.
Sitting outside the Orange County Convention Center WF1-4 Hall, Ruffin took a moment to reflect on his weightlifting experience Friday afternoon.
The U.S. Army veteran won his weight class, taking the title with 280 pounds and on his first of three lifting attempts and he had two family members – his 19-year-old son Khalil and 39-year-old fiancé Tomeka – there to see it.
He was pleased. Still, though, he wanted to lift more.
Ruffin missed on his final two lifting attempts – both at 300 pounds or more.
“I feel OK about it because I still got the gold, but it’s like I’m doing less and less every year,” said Ruffin, who sustained a T11 injury on Sept. 28, 1998, after having a stroke and too much internal bleeding during surgery after a car accident on his way to work in Raleigh, N.C. “I started at 280 and wanted to go to 300, but they put too much weight on and gave me 320, so that’s why I didn’t get the second lift. But they was going to let me redo it and I told them that’s OK cause I got the gold anyways.”
The Orange County Convention Center WF1-4 Hall was filled with characters for the fifth day of the NVWG, co-sponsored by Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs. There was a masked man (PVA Florida Gulf Coast Chapter member and Air Force veteran Andy Bernt) wearing a red, white and blue USA mask covering his whole face and a USA stars and stripes shirt. Later, when he got serious, he added a fireman’s helmet on top. There was even a woman, Orlando resident Cathy Haynes, dressed as the Statue of Liberty.
Ruffin, who served from 1993-96 in water purification, dressed his part, wearing all light blue North Carolina gear – a North Carolina Tar Heels light blue shirt. He, Bernt and fellow competitor Dane Smith gave each other some good-natured competitive banter throughout the three-hour event, too.
It was a busy day for Ruffin, a PVA Mid-America Chapter member, who competed in trapshooting in the morning and then weightlifting in the afternoon.
He’d like to lift more, but that’s hard with not a lot of room in his apartment at home and the gym where he sometimes goes, Bridge II Sports, in Durham, N.C., too far to drive to every day.
“I don’t have a bench. I mean, I do like the little pulley sometimes, but I’m working on trying to get me, I live in an apartment so I have no way to set up my own weight set,” Ruffin said.