National Veterans Wheelchair Games Begin

By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Lisa Bard finally got a chance to play basketball with the guys on Tuesday.

"Since I was little, I wanted to play with the boys," Bard said as she cooled down from a brief exhibition game at the opening of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.

Bard, who served in the Air Force Guard and Reserve from 1985-92, injured her spine in a training accident in 1988 and now must use a wheelchair except for very brief periods at home.

She competed with fellow veterans who included spinal-cord injury victims and amputees.

"I've been an athlete all my life and I so much missed sports," said Bard, 38, a psychotherapist from Germantown, Md. She competes with a wheelchair team in Baltimore.

She hopes her participation in the five-day competition involving 545 wheelchair athletes will persuade disabled women to get involved. Only 7 percent of those in the competition are women.

Bard will compete with men in softball and basketball but only against women in the air gun, weightlifting and slalom obstacle competitions.

William Neuls, 36, of San Antonio, a former Army Reservist who suffered a spinal injury in a 1998 car accident, said the event gives him a chance to trade success stories and ideas on life in a wheelchair.

"You find people who do work and were in the military," he said. "The games to me are for the new guys and gals. It lets people know, 'Hey, I can do things.'"

Jonathan Jones, 11, of suburban South Euclid, a volunteer at the games, said watching a basketball game involving 10 people in wheelchairs made him grateful.

"I makes me feel lucky that I have legs," he said. "It inspires me to see they have the ability to do these kind of sports."

The games also include bowling, trap shooting, table tennis, track and field, archery, hand cycling and quad rugby, a kind of four-on-four event involving wheelchairs with bumpers.

"We hit one another with a chair and try to knock them over," Neuls said. "It's a very tough sport."

James Patin, 19, of Ingleside, Texas, served in the Navy one year until his legs were paralyzed by a viral infection that attacked his spinal cord.

The games help fulfill his love of sports, according to Patin, who said he deals with his disability well. "I'm handling it good. It's another way of living, just sitting down."

Any veteran using a wheelchair is eligible for the games. Many of the participants have non-service-related injuries suffered after they left the military.

The event, being held at locations around the area, is sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. The VA provides spinal cord-injury care to 15,000 veterans annually.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)