The 2021 National Veterans Wheelchair Games return to New York City for first time in 20 years
For the first time in two years, wheelchair athletes from across the globe came together as they converged for the 2021 National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in New York City.
Marine Corps veteran Julian Perez called it beautiful.
“We love the camaraderie when we come, and then not only that, it brings our competitive edge, so we can concentrate on that instead of concentrating on other parts of our bodies that aren’t doing so well,” says the 59-year-old Perez, a right-leg amputee who lives in Hemet, Calif. “Well, for many of us, we consider this our Olympics.”
For Perez and many other wheelchair athletes, it’s that big.
The event kicked off Saturday, as did a new sport, adaptive disc golf, along with adaptive fitness events, boccia ball, para badminton and table tennis for those attending in person and a variety of events for those participating in the at-home version.
Sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), this year’s Games, the 40th according to the VA and PVA, and a hybrid edition which runs through Aug. 14, featured a host of changes because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
For starters, instead of athletes all coming to the host city at once for the in-person games, they were split into two groups. The first group participates from Saturday until Monday, while the second group competes Thursday through Saturday.
This year’s Games also features a host of new protocols, including masks being worn indoors for all events and daily individual COVID-19 testing, along with athletes having to wear wristbands that track close contact and COVID-19 diagnoses and checking themselves in and out of events with them.
There were also no in-person opening ceremonies, as they were done virtually through a Facebook post this year. So, it’s made for a different experience.
“This year especially brought about many challenges,” says PVA President Charles Brown, a Marine Corps veteran, in a pre-recorded video message posted on Facebook late Saturday afternoon. “Just like the veterans who participate in this event, we learn to adapt and overcome those challenges.”
VA Secretary Denis McDonough added to that in his own prerecorded video statement — reminding veterans of what NVWG organizers Tom Brown, Muriel Barbour and Wally Lynch hoped the Games would do when they started them in 1981.
“Tom and other early organizers of these Games knew that veterans never quit, even when the odds are against them. They knew that injuries don’t mean you give up. They knew that younger veterans could learn from older ones, that disability doesn’t mean that life ends. It just means that life takes a different road,” McDonough says. “They knew that veterans persevere in the most difficult missions and most challenging conditions. And they knew that the same mental and physical grit that made you all proud soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen is the same quality that makes you all formidable athletes despite your injuries.”
In only one day, the Games brought 51-year-old Army veteran and novice NVWG participant Kristie Townsend such joy. A Spokane, Wash., resident, Townsend says her physical therapists, Traci Rosselet and Patricia Vancurler, pushed her to go to the Games. And she had a blast trying out her first few events — javelin, shot put, discus and disc golf — at Randall’s Island in Manhattan, N.Y.
She especially enjoyed adaptive disc golf. She wants to go back home and find other clubs and groups who play it or find courses that host it.
But what Townsend, who has a level C6-7 a spinal-cord injury, a fused T10 vertebrae to her sacrum and multiple traumatic brain injuries, values most so far has been the people.
“I’m amazed at how kind everyone has been and just all the amazing things to see and do and all the people I’ve met have been just really, really helpful and extremely kind,” Townsend says. And it helps a lot because I have really bad anxiety. I feel like I’m having a heart attack sometimes ’cause I’m so stressed out. But everyone’s been so kind, so it’s made that a lot nicer. It’s been a wonderful experience so far, and I’m excited for the rest of the week.”