Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Milwaukee Vets take top medals in Wheelchair Games
It certainly wasn’t what they envisioned – 10 days in the Pacific Northwest, reveling in the environment and mixing with their brethren from across the country – but local athletes still made the best of this year’s annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were no games in Portland. Many competitions were canceled, while those that happened took place virtually.
“We’re very sad we couldn’t get together in Portland, Oregon, but we wanted everyone to stay healthy and safe,” said Dave Tostenrude, director of the games. “It was a hard choice.”
Instead, local athletes competed at home, with only a family member or loved one looking on, recording the event on a smartphone.
Athletes competed on certain days and at certain times, as prescribed by the schedule, and submitted tally sheets and videos to the national organization.
It wasn’t ideal, but for people accustomed to overcoming hurdles, it was just one more leap.
“In a world that has become so virtual and digital so quickly, they adapted,” said Erinn Kulba, recreation therapist of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center. “They gave it their all regardless of the adverse circumstances.”
Amber Ulicky, recreation therapy intern, agreed.
“We are very happy and surprised at how well the Veterans participated and got into the games even though it was virtual and there were less events.”
Seven Veterans connected with the Milwaukee VA Medical Center took part in the virtual games, and they brought home their share of medals:
- Ken Ness took gold in the 30-Day Cycling Challenge (Class IV/V) and bronze in air rifle (Class SH1).
- Gary Stott took gold in the cycling challenge (Class IB/IC).
- LeToi Adams took silver in the Cascade Cup (Class IV/V).
- The team of Rose Ganz (disc golf), Rickey Riley (shotput) Derrick Trentin (shotput), LeToi Adams (Wall Ball) and Kaleb Wilson (fishing) took silver in the Butler Cup team challenge.
“Milwaukee showed up,” Kulba said. “We took home a lot of medals.”
Local Veterans who participated said they regretted not being able to compete in person with their fellow Veterans but understood the decision.
“It was difficult,” Trentin said. “Part of the reason for the games is for disabled Veterans to get together. Not being able to do that changes things up. I really missed that part.
“To compete in person is much more energizing. This was almost like practicing at home by yourself.”
“I wasn’t as motivated as before, when I’m with my Veteran family,” she said. “But when I did get out and do the events, it was fun. It was exciting.”
Ness said he supported the decision but it wasn’t the same.
“It will never take the place of competing in person and that instant drama,” he said. “But you can do this anywhere. I did this in the comfort of my own home. Before, I had to pack up and go somewhere else.
“This makes it easier for guys to compete. With virtual games, I see a very big plus and potentially more participation.”
The games are considered the “world’s largest annual wheelchair sports event solely for military Veterans,” according to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games website. This year was the 40th edition of the games, which are co-presented by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Paralyzed Veterans of America.
Starting in 1981 with seven events and 77 athletes, the games have continued to grow, attracting nearly 600 athletes competing in 23 events at last year’s games in Louisville, Kentucky.
The Department of Veterans Affairs made the decision in early April to cancel the in-person games and move the competition online.
“VA made this decision out of an abundance of caution for the health, safety and well-being of vulnerable populations like older Veterans and those with underlying medical conditions, as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” according to a news release posted by the Paralyzed Veterans of America on April 2.
Plans are continuing for the 2021 games, to take place in New York City.
“The games represent an incredible community,” Tostenrude said during the games’ awards ceremony, which took place online. “This has been an incredible period in our lives. … We’re working hard to get back together in New York.”
Whether the games are virtual or in-person, Veterans will continue to give their all to adaptive sports because for nearly all of them, the work has become a part of their lifestyle.
“It’s not about one week out of the summer. It’s about what you do every day,” Tostenrude said.