They may no longer wear the uniform, but the athlete competitors at the 2023 National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) July 4-9 missed no small details displaying the spirit of determination and camaraderie.
Held at venues throughout Portland, Ore., the event brought together approximately 500 proud Veterans athletes from across the nation and Great Britain for competition in 23 adaptive sports events.
“This inspiring event and the athletes who compete are a powerful example of how Veterans’ adaptive sports and recreational therapy provide opportunities for disabled Veterans to fully realize their potential and to demonstrate skill, determination and competitive fire.” – Donna Hoffmeier, TriWest Senior Vice President, Strategic Communications and Advocacy
Hosted and coordinated by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Games are the world’s largest annual wheelchair sports and rehabilitation event for Veterans with a range of injuries and conditions.
Veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations, multiple sclerosis, and other central neurological conditions requiring a wheelchair competed in the weeklong event. The Games included rugby, softball, pickleball, basketball, field events, air rifle/pistol, cycling, bowling, bass fishing, adaptive fitness, ping pong and more.
The event was co-presented by the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), and other organizations including TriWest Healthcare Alliance (TriWest) provided sponsorship and on-site support.
“As a long-time sponsor, we have been extremely honored to support the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, and to encourage Veteran health and wellness,” said Donna Hoffmeier, TriWest Senior Vice President, Strategic Communications and Advocacy. “This inspiring event and the athletes who compete are a powerful example of how Veterans’ adaptive sports and recreational therapy provide opportunities for disabled Veterans to fully realize their potential and to demonstrate skill, determination and competitive fire.”
Glenn Gray, TriWest Director of Customer Care and Community Relations, emphasized the reason why TriWest has been a long-time supporter of the event.
“Not only do the Games allow us to support Veteran athletes, they offer an opportunity to interact and hear about their experiences with TriWest and the community providers within the TriWest provider network,” Glenn said. “That valuable feedback helps us provide better service and support.”
An Inspiring July 4th Opening Ceremony Celebrates Service and Determination
The Opening Ceremony, held the evening of July 4th following the first day of competition, celebrated the Veteran athletes’ service to the nation and kicked off an engaging and energizing week.
Prior to the ceremony, each states’ contingent of Veteran athletes enthusiastically gathered in formation at the front of the hall. Soon each state was alphabetically announced to the audience with the Veterans in parade appreciating and enjoying the recognition.
The teams from each state and the United Kingdom accumulated on the ceremony floor, increasing enthusiasm and celebration filled the room until all Veteran athletes were present and faced forward.
Acting VA Deputy Secretary Guy Kiyokawa, a former U.S. Army Aeromedical Evacuation helicopter pilot, gave the ceremony keynote address, emphasizing the personal contributions and inspiration of the Veteran athletes.
“Thanks to all Veteran competitors for your service, your sacrifices and your examples of courage and determination,” Kiyokawa said.
Among the Veteran athletes that day was Michael A. Hernandez, a U.S. Air Force Veteran from Stockton, Calif., who served in Security/Military Police roles – deploying to Afghanistan in 2009 – later in 2019 suffering a serious post-service car collision that resulted in a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
After the collision he had a 50-50 survival chance, according to an attending physician. “I beat the odds,” Michael said. “The military taught me how to survive,” he added.
His determination to improve his memory and pursue rehabilitation led him to participate in his first Wheelchair Games, competing in air rifle, air pistol, javelin, shotput, adaptive fitness, archery and bowling.
His first Opening Ceremony was a new experience he immediately found energizing and welcoming.
“It was a really inspiring, enjoyable ceremony with incredible camaraderie,” Michael said. “It seemed like a reunion for everyone. We all have some similar struggles and similar issues, and it seems we all know each other one way or another.”
Games Begin Across Portland with Engaging, Heated Competition
This year’s activities were held primarily at the Oregon Convention Center, with some events staged across the city. The bowling venue was sponsored by TriWest and was on the west side of Portland, with the wheelchair mobility competition on the eastside waterfront, and swimming further east toward the foothills of Mt. Hood.
Adam Cherney, a former Marine Corps Supply Specialist from Flowery Branch, Ga., who suffered a severe spinal injury in a training accident while serving, competed in cycling at Portland International Raceway (PIR). He didn’t let the warm temperatures of the day deter his competitive drive.
“I just competed in the 21K hand cycling event, which includes 7 full laps in about 40 minutes,” he shared shortly after completing the strenuous NVWG cycling event. “This is just an incredible first-time experience on the raceway and it is very, very fun,” Adam emphasized.
He added, “I’m working with a trainer for power lifting this week and I am also competing in air rifle and the e-sports later in the week. I’m looking forward to all of it.”
The spirit of the Games was evident in every competition and the personal interactions at Veteran athlete gatherings. The Games offered a unique opportunity to demonstrate and challenge skills in competition while embracing unity.
Todd Costa, a former U.S. Army Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Technician from Colorado Springs, Colo., years later was diagnosed with severe exposure to dangerous chemical agents including Agent Orange, Agent White and Agent X.
He eventually lost one leg to amputation and “soon another,” he said, from joint disintegration that has also affected his hands. He received 100% disability due to the damaging physical effects from his service, which included serving at “three of the most polluted places” at the time.
Todd started competing in wheelchair sports following rehabilitation in 2014. Another local wheelchair sports Veteran athlete suggested he join in playing basketball, and once he got involved and active, “since then it has been a good time,” Todd said.
While he values the intense competition at the Games, he also emphasized the opportunity to show others that the competitors are highly talented and athletically capable, just like others.
“The Games allow us to go other places and compete in different sports,” Todd said. “But it’s also an opportunity for people to learn. Not a lot of people are regularly seen in wheelchairs – we don’t have diseases, we have injuries and people need to see and learn. That’s part of the reason I come,” he added.
Todd also summarized the true spirit of the entire National Veterans Wheelchair Games event and how he has learned to further appreciate them after multiple Games.
“These Games and the opening ceremony are important because these Veterans are heroes,” Todd said.
“You might see Veterans with Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, and even Medal of Honor recipients,” he noted. “Throughout the Games competition and during the opening ceremony, seeing all of these different Veterans together in camaraderie is a simply a great experience.”
“One of my favorite parts of our opening ceremony,” he added, “is that we take the time do the ‘Pledge of Allegiance.’ Everyone here, whether as spectators or competitors, we all have freedom because of all who are participating in these Games.”