Veterans wheelchair games continue, end Sunday

Harold Hack competes in the slalom at the Convention Center, racing past obstacles with help and encouragement.
Harold Hack competes in the slalom at the Convention Center, racing past obstacles with help and encouragement. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 17, 2014

After Javier Barraza fell off a roof five years ago and broke his back, there were days he wished he was dead.

"But you know what? Doing sports helped," he said while watching quad rugby Friday at the 34th National Veterans Wheelchair Games at the Convention Center. "It brings back a lot of self-confidence. And it helps from getting depressed."

The Special Forces veteran suffered some injuries while serving, but none were as life-changing as the one he sustained as a civilian. While working on the roof of his two-story home in 2009, he fell and broke his back.

After that, he was too depressed to get out of bed and too angry to take part in what was happening around him. All he wanted to do was to stand up and walk - and he couldn't.

That lasted about a year. Then he found sports and a reason to get out bed.

Now the 47-year-old is competing in softball, bowling, and track and field in his third time around at the games. He's planning to be in Dallas next year for the 35th games.

"It is good being around, meeting new people, catching up with other," Barraza said.

The games, which are mainly clustered at the Convention Center and have drawn about 600 athletes to compete in archery, basketball, swimming, and other sports, conclude Sunday. Alongside the athletes are more than 2,400 volunteers who make the games, which are free, possible.

One of the orange-T-shirt-clad volunteers was Carol Ayers.

"It is awesome to see the ambition of all athletes," Ayers said while handing out towels and water, and cheering on the competitors. "It is my first time at the wheelchair games but will definitely not be my last."

Quad rugby player Mason Symons, who lives in Austin, Texas, is dreaming of competing in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

"It is my goal," said the 25-year-old, who lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 2009. "Rugby gives me adrenaline, satisfaction, and motivation"

He might make it: He is fast, smart, and strong, with broad shoulders and muscular, tattooed arms. And, he has the support of his family; his mother, brother, grandmother, aunt, and friends were here to cheer him on.

"He is so committed, and he loves what he is doing," said his mother, Ruby Reichert. "Actually he is handling what has happened better than I do."

In quad rugby, as in regular rugby, the point of the game is to carry a ball past the goal line. The difference is that there are only six players to a team, the ball is round, and when the chairs crash into each other, they make a loud boom.

Engaging in sports is good for the wheelchair-bound, said Kelly Heath, who specializes in rehabilitation and is a member of the games' medical team. "It is very important; it brings some scheme to their lives."

On Friday, she brought her 3-year-old son, Landon, to watch local children demonstrate wheelchair sports. One of them was 14-year-old Maddie Jones, who tried out the wheelchair slalom.

As she took on the course - for the first time in her life - Dan Rose rode his chair alongside her, encouraging and guiding her as she maneuvered her chair.

"Sport means freedom and excitement," Maddie said after mastering ramps, a bumpy surface, obstacles, and sharp corners. "And it is a lot like real life."

Rose, who was severely wounded while dismantling an explosive device in Afghanistan, called working with the children "a great opportunity."

"It shows what is possible in a wheelchair," Rose said.

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