“This clinic and ceremony make me feel embraced and welcomed in society, and it gives hope to what could seem hopeless.” – Bryson Amaral, U.S. Army Veteran
The morning skies in San Diego may have been gray and subdued, but that didn’t diminish the upbeat spirit of Veterans at the 16th National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic (NVSSC), held June 4-9.
Approximately 130 Veterans from across the nation attended the event. The participants had a range of injuries and conditions, and attended this annual event to learn skills, gain confidence, and make new connections as a part of their ongoing rehabilitation.
Organized and managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), NVSSC provides Veterans a unique and energizing opportunity for instruction and training in fitness, cycling, yoga, kayaking, sailing, surfing and meditation.
The VA San Diego Healthcare System hosted the clinic at several venues across the city.
Wounded Warrior Project and Veterans Canteen Services were sponsors of the event. Several adaptive sports and activity organizations provided training, outfitting and support. TriWest Healthcare Alliance (TriWest) and other organizations also partnered and attended as supporting sponsors.
Donna Hoffmeier, TriWest Senior Vice President, Strategic Communications and Advocacy, has attended the event more than 10 times and remarked, “We are extremely proud of our ongoing support of, and commitment to, adaptive sports and activities for Veterans, including the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic.”
“VA is a leader in adaptive sports and for Veterans living with injuries, the Summer Sports Clinic opens doors to new experiences and lifelong connections,” Donna added.
Surfing the Pacific
During the surfing and meditation sessions held at La Jolla Shores, the excitement of the week’s activities wasn’t limited by gray skies or cool wind off the water. The clinic’s ‘Poseidon’ and ‘Phoenix’ teams gathered with instructors and coaches, displaying enthusiasm about “riding the waves.”
“I had a blast surfing – everyone said I had the biggest grin in our group!” said Sarah Labrada, a former U.S. Army Combat Medic. “I’ve never surfed before in my life. It was freezing cold even with our wetsuits, but I had four good runs and didn’t fall off at all!”
During her military career, Sarah had served around the world. In 2009, the mother of two sons had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Despite a knee injury during Service and MS diagnosis, Sarah is committed to being positive and active – including learning surfing – in part from ongoing VA medical support and personal determination.
“Since my initial Army injury, the VA later gave me ‘bionic legs’ so I can remain an active and positive person,” she said. “That’s why I love this clinic and what VA has done for me. Being active and positive is who I am and what I’m all about. Wherever I am I try to be the one with the most positive attitude and encourage others not to give up and stay as active as possible,” she shared.
Veteran Fitness and Motivation
Specialized instruction, training and adaptive sports coaching were provided for Veterans with spinal cord injuries, amputations, vision impairments, neurological conditions, PTSD, burns, traumatic brain injury, trauma, and other injuries and conditions. During the activity presented by the Adaptive Training Academy (ATA), Veterans received instruction on a range of exercises to gain strength, build confidence and maintain fitness.
Bryson Amaral, a Honolulu resident and former U.S. Army Sr. Culinary Management Specialist who served for 17 years, had earlier received a medical retirement from his Service due to a degenerative vision disease that leads to legal blindness.
Bryson said participating in the adaptive fitness training was energizing and motivating.
“This is a great clinic and experience that provides new motivation for when I return home,” Bryson said. “This entire event is inspiring, and participating in the CrossFit activity taught me exercises to do at home and get my motivation going. When you’re at home a lot of your time, it’s important to keep your motivation.”
While Veteran teams worked through exercises and instruction at the adaptive fitness activity, others teams were participating in adaptive kayaking at the Mission Bay Yacht Club.
That activity engaged the Veterans in a new experience with other teammates facing challenges, culminating in an exciting and inspiring team relay race to demonstrate their skill and energy.
Willie Hendrickson, a wheelchair sports participant and an ambassador for the Warrior Veterans Adaptive Sports Club with Veterans Mobility Projects, emphasized the importance of the adaptive kayaking experience to help the Veterans thrive and prosper.
“Activities like this adaptive kayaking experience are especially helpful to get Veterans out of their heads,” Willie said. “It helps them get their mind on other activities, focus on something else, and helps get them engaged.”
At Fiddler’s Cove Marina in Coronado on the second day of the clinic, two new teams arrived for a day of sailing where they learned the sport’s basics.
Saha Ranjan Kumar, a medically retired former U.S. Navy Information Systems Technician from New York City who served 13 years including deployments to Iraq, Liberia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Bahrain, found his first sailing experience enjoyable and relaxing.
“I really enjoyed it,” Saha said. “It was great to see our whole team together enjoying a new activity. I found sailing both exciting and relaxing, and our team all took turns with different roles. I would absolutely do it again.”
He emphasized the prospect of new experiences throughout the clinic. “Tomorrow I’m participating in CrossFit and later in the week I’m really looking forward to kayaking,” he added.
Camaraderie, Networking and Hope
While the week-long clinic introduced Veterans to adaptive sports, recreation and experiences, the event didn’t just focus on physical activities.
The ‘Welcome Celebration’ reception and dinner gathered Veterans at Petco Park for a San Diego Padres vs. Chicago Cubs baseball game. It provided an opportunity to enjoy a rooftop experience celebrating camaraderie and shared experiences.
Paul Miller of Ormond Beach, Fla., shared his appreciation for the gathering and opportunity to try new activities. As a former U.S. Army infantry “Gunner” followed by service in the U.S. Navy, Paul echoed the excitement and rehabilitating effect of his first surfing and meditation experience.
“I’ve never been surfing before and loved it,” Paul expressed. “This clinic and the morning surfing session is a way to channel adrenaline that has been pent up and internalized for the last 35 years.”
“This sports clinic and Welcome Celebration are among the best things I’ve done this year,” Bryson added.
He also had the unexpected discovery of meeting another Veteran dealing with the same challenge he faces.
“I think the main highlight of the clinic for me is that I met another retired Army Veteran with the same rare eye disease. He is older than me and has dealt with his vision loss longer than I have,” Bryson explained. “Meeting him and getting to know how he has dealt with it gave me fortitude and hope – it’s like a seed that grows within.”
Bryson summarized the week’s events by saying, “This clinic and ceremony make me feel embraced and welcomed in society, and it gives hope to what could seem hopeless.”