PVA Cal-Diego Chapter member Johnny Sandoval wins 2023 Spirit of the Games award
Johnny Sandoval says the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) did more than just change his life. They saved it.
That’s why the 56-year-old Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Cal-Diego Chapter member and Navy veteran has been paying it forward to first-year wheelchair games athletes ever since.
That’s what keeps him going.
Sandoval’s charisma, energy and enthusiasm are just a handful of reasons why athletes selected him as the Spirit of the Games award winner for the 2023 NVWG, co-sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and PVA, in Portland, Ore., on Sunday evening inside the Portland Convention Center. Besides receiving the Spirit of the Games award, Sandoval also received a trip of his choice to anywhere in the U.S. and full travel and lodging to next year’s NVWG, courtesy of Games’ sponsor First Nation Group.
A Navy veteran who served from 1984 to 1988, he served as a Class 3A engineman on the USS Cayuga LST 186.
“Been coming like 22 years and finally achieve it, it’s a great feeling,” says Sandoval, who sustained level T12 and L1 complete spinal-cord injuries on Feb. 3, 2001, during an automobile accident — one which he admits to drinking and driving while going 140 mph — and it led him to get a second chance at life.
Started in 1987, the Spirit of the Games award is voted on by other wheelchair athletes and presented to NVWG participants who best exemplify athletic excellence, sportsmanship and good character.
Sandoval first attended the Games as an observer back in 2001. The next year, he competed and has returned year after year ever since. This year, he competed in wheelchair softball, table tennis, wheelchair basketball and 9-ball billiards. He does those four sports each Games.
PVA COO Shaun Castle, who Sandoval jokingly calls “GQ,” presented him with the award and in presenting the award said it’s a moment that’s been a long time coming.
“This gentleman refers to me as ‘GQ.’ Why he calls me that, I still don’t quite know. But every time I see him, he tells me, ‘Do the pose, Shaun. Do the pose, ‘GQ.’ And I am honored tonight to be the one to be able to make the announcement that this year’s Spirt of the Games award winner — the person who represents the spirit that I live by and I know every single person who’s here lives by all year long, is Mr. Johnny Sandoval.”
Fans also chanted “John-ny, John-ny” as he wheeled down the floor and up a ramp onto the stage and two videos aired of him telling others what the Games mean to him. Then, after reaching the stage and receiving the award, he shared a hug and a few words with Castle. After a long moment, Sandoval gave a short speech — thanking the Spinal-Cord Injury Center at the VA San Diego Health Care System, his recreation therapist Kelli Kaliszewski, who helped get him started in adaptive sports 20-plus years ago, and issued wheelchair athletes a challenge before going to next year’s Games in New Orleans.
“My challenge to every single one of you is to invite somebody new next year, and let’s rock New Orleans. See you all there. Thanks again,” Sandoval says.