Wheelchair Games about competing, belonging
He plays basketball and softball, throws the shot put and skis cross-country.Rifle resident and Vietnam War veteran Jim Gerloff does all this and more – without his left leg.Most recently, Gerloff participated in the 24th annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games June 15-19 in St. Louis. Gerloff, who competed in the Class V category for amputees, won two bronze medals, for the 100-meter sprint and softball.
“You get elated, your spirits are up. Even if you lose, it doesn’t matter much,” Gerloff said. “You cheer everybody on. You’re out there to help the person in that chair.” Sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Wheelchair Games give military service veterans in wheelchairs with spinal cord injuries, amputations or neurological conditions opportunities to compete in more than 15 sports. Almost any sport can be adapted for the wheelchair, from rugby to soccer, said Wheelchair Games public affairs coordinator Kim Byers.The first games took place in Richmond, Va., in 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons, with 74 competitors from 14 states. This year, 515 competitors from 45 states, Puerto Rico and Great Britain took part, with the British competitors playing as guests.The games foster a spirit of camaraderie between competitors that aids both physical and mental well-being, Byers said. At this year’s games, two Iraqi Freedom veterans played alongside World War II veterans.”The wheelchair games are great because the expert athletes take the new ones under their wings and try to train them and give them motivation,” Byers said. “That often leads to healthier lifestyles when they get home, because it gives them a reason to continue to stay in shape.”
For Gerloff, attending the games is like a family reunion.”Once you go, you get with certain people and see what they are doing and what their families are doing,” Gerloff said. “There’s old friends but no strangers – everybody helps each other, gives each other tips.” Originally from Dalton City, Ill., Gerloff moved to Rifle two and a half years ago with his wife, a native Coloradan. Gerloff has played in the games for 12 years, but has been involved in wheelchair sports since he lost his leg in Vietnam in 1970. The Paralympics have invited Gerloff to try out for the cross-country ski team, but he said he mostly competes for the fun of competition and to keep active.”It’s taxing on the body because you do have to practice and get in shape – otherwise you get blown out,” Gerloff said. “You’d be surprised how hard it is to pick up a ball that’s barely rolling.”Gerloff hopes to organize basketball and softball wheelchair games in Rifle, where he said people are enthusiastic about getting a team going.
The Department of Veterans Affairs sponsors four events, including the National Veterans Golden Age games, for veterans over 55; the Wheelchair Games; the Disabled Veterans Winter Sports; and the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, featuring dance, drama and art. Next year’s Wheelchair Games will take place in Minneapolis, and Byers said she’s already heard people talking about seeing each other in 2005.”They have that common bond of having been in the military, and you really feel that at the games all week,” Byers said.Contact Christine Dell’Amore:945-8515, ext. firstname.lastname@example.org
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