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The History of the National Veterans Wheelchair Games

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games are an outgrowth of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ historic involvement in wheelchair sports. Wheelchair sports had their beginning in the aftermath of World War II, when young disabled Veterans began playing wheelchair basketball in VA hospitals throughout the United States. Interest in wheelchair basketball soon spread to other sports such as track and field, bowling, swimming, and archery, spawning the formation of several associations devoted to new and innovative wheelchair sports.

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While the participation of paralyzed and other disabled Veterans continued to flourish during the intervening years, it was not until 1980, when VA established a Recreation Therapy Service, that VA’s efforts brought about an enhanced awareness of the rehabilitative value of wheelchair athletics. Since then, VA therapists have used wheelchair sports as a therapeutic tool for treating Veterans with disabilities.

The first National Veterans Wheelchair Games were held in 1981, the “International Year of Disabled Persons,” at the VA Medical Center in Richmond, Va. That year, 74 veterans from 14 states competed in sports ranging from table tennis and billiards, to swimming and weightlifting. Those first Games established an enduring trait that has characterized the event ever since — a strong sense of common identity and camaraderie among the participants. The hundreds of Veterans who choose to compete in the Games each year demonstrate their continuing popularity.

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By 1985, the growing size, complexity, and resources needed for the Games presented a daunting challenge to VA medical centers hosting the program. Recognizing that most of the athletes were paralyzed Veterans, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) offered to become a co-sponsor. To help obtain resources needed to host this national event, PVA recruited corporations to join in support of the Games. Since 1985, PVA's corporate sponsor program has helped the Games grow, both in number of competitors as well as variety of sports offered.

In 1987, 12 British military Veterans were invited to participate in the Games and a team from Great Britain has come every year since. After that first year, the British athletes formed a new disabled sports group — The British Ex-Services Wheelchair Sports Association. This group extended the philosophy behind the National Veterans Wheelchair Games to the rest of the world, hosting International Veterans Wheelchair Games in Great Britain in 1993 and 1995.

The National Veterans Wheelchair Games represent the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world. Both VA and PVA are committed to the rehabilitation of Veterans with disabilities through these Games, and will continue their efforts to make sure the National Veterans Wheelchair Games are challenging and rewarding every year.

BEWSA'S participation in the PVA Games

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Each year we send a dozen or so members to the American 'Paralyzed Veterans of America' games. They are held in a different place each year, so some of our longer team members have seen quite a bit of the ‘States’ by now. The list of sports available is quite comprehensive and you may select a minimum of three events and a maximum of five. There are three sections, one for novices, i.e. their first year in sport, the regular group and the ‘masters’, for those over 40yrs if they wish. You are then separated into classes. This is based on the level of disability you have in order to make the competition fair, and does not depend on your sporting ability.

Sports range from swimming to ten-pin bowling, and basketball to rifle shooting. Track racing and field events are also available. They do have demonstration events, and some, like soft ball and row cycling, become permanent events the following year.

They usually have equipment like rifles and archery equipment for athletes to use, but the novices get first choice so you really need to look at your own equipment. BEWSA has some new rifles and we take these, but you need to take your own archery equipment if that’s what you want to do. Everyone has a great time, lots to do and see, and the Americans really give our team a warm welcome. Everyone has made lifelong friends. If more people wish to go to the games than places available, then the members take turns to go. It was decided at BEWSA’s inception that this was not an organisation solely for elite athletes. They have lots of other avenues. So everyone takes a turn, with the newly injured getting priority.

BEWSA heavily subsidises team members but you will be required to make a contribution. However, remember the old saying, if you work for something and save for something, it’s all the more sweeter when you get it.