Tackling Obstacles

Veterans push their limits on final day of NVWG


On the final day of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG), Nathan Thomas’ arms and hands felt like jelly.

In his first in-person event at his first NVWG, the Spokane, Wash., resident competed in the Class V obstacle course known as slalom Saturday morning — and because he kept advancing, he had to complete the course three times in a row inside the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel. To say the 33-year-old Air Force veteran was exhausted is an understatement.

Nathan Thomas earned the silver medal Saturday in the Class V obstacle course known as slalom inside the Sheraton New York Times Square hotel at the 2021 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in New York City. (Photo by John Groth)

“Tiring, hard on my arms, glad I didn’t faceplant,” says Thomas, who was diagnosed in 2014 with myotonia congenita, an inherited neuromuscular disorder, and a narrowing of the spinal canal called spinal stenosis. “Just learning the obstacles. By the third one I kind of had a feel for it, just didn’t have arm strength to get more speed and more power over the obstacles that I needed to power through. I had the technique down by the third time, but I didn’t have the strength to go faster.”

Thomas finished with silver medal in the Class V division, recording his fastest time of 2 minutes, 31 seconds in his final attempt, while Army veteran David Norris (Tacoma, Wash.) took that division with his 1:26 time.

“I’m not fearless. I see something, I attack,” says Norris, who has a spinal-cord injury (SCI). “That’s how it works for me.”

As the 40th hybrid NVWG, co-sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), closed out, wheelchair athletes gathered for the final time. Despite the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, this year’s Games got back on track.

Saturday’s events stayed inside the hotel, with the obstacle courses for athletes in Divisions II, III, IV and V, along with the adaptive fitness competition, para-badminton, table tennis and boccia ball tournaments.

Gateway PVA Chapter member Larry Furnace took full advantage of it. The 53-year old St. Louis resident randomly decided to do the adaptive fitness competition after talking with some people.

“I love this. I love all the different sports,” says Furnace, an Army veteran who sustained a T11-12 SCI in a Sept. 18, 1988, car accident. “I’m the type of person that likes to push my body to the limit to see how good I am at everything. So, if I’m interested in it, I’m going to do it.”
This year’s closing was a bit different, as well.

David Norris won the Class V obstacle course known as slalom Saturday inside the Sheraton New York Times Square Hotel at the 40th National Veterans Wheelchair Games in New York City. (Photo by John Groth)

Since this year’s NVWG was split into two groups, there were two Spirit of the Games award winners announced. This year, instead of one athlete being named in-person during the closing ceremony, they had two — Army veteran William Hendrickson (first group) and Army veteran LeToi Adams (second group). The winners were announced during a closing video shown on the VA’s Adaptive Sports and Arts Facebook page,

This marked Hendrickson’s 15th NVWG, and he competed Saturday through Monday with the first group.

“The Games saved my life, took me from a place of darkness and brought me back to a world where I can enjoy myself and do the things I love to do,” Hendrickson says in the video. “I can’t say enough about the Games cause the Games are what saved my life.”

Adams competed Thursday through Saturday with the second group — getting to talk with VA Secretary Denis McDonough and receiving a challenge coin from him, as well as hitting a free throw at Holcombe Rucker Park to help get the New York (Red) team to the championship game.

“The Wheelchair Games have changed my life in a positive way,” Adams says in the video. “I’ve been able to travel to different cities and states. Due to the events that I’m able to go to, I am outside in the world. Before, when I wasn’t, I was at home constantly all the time. The first time was the best time and every time just gets a little bit better with all the other athletes.”

Additionally, PVA Executive Director Carl Blake says the NVWG is so critical for people to able to live their lives and enjoy things in spite of all these challenges.

“I’ve talked with so many veterans who said that they were just excited and happy to get out of the house, to get out and do something that they, frankly, haven’t been able to do for a while,” Blake says in the video.

As for next year’s Games, they’re scheduled for July 2022 in Tempe, Ariz.

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