Minnesota disabled athletes, Charlie Wittwer and Ric Jost are excited to have the upcoming 2005 National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) in their home state. As President (Wittwer) and Executive Director (Jost) of the Minnesota Chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), these two men eagerly look forward to participating in the games along with the 500+ athletes that will also attend.
Co-hosting the event with the Minneapolis VA Center, the MN Chapter-PVA offers such members as Harlen Ebert a chance to compete with local MN acquaintances Nicholas Suckow and Jerry Price in sporting events that are fun, friendly and sometimes fierce. The accomplishments of these five local athletes are highlighted in the stories that follow.
Multi-Talented Wheelchair Athlete Does it All!
He has attended nine National Veterans Wheelchair Games in a row. He skis each year at the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and has been selected to perform at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival for the past three years, impressing the audience with his own special brand of “sit-down” comedy. His name is Charlie Wittwer.
Wittwer, 55, of Cloquet, MN, is a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam. While serving his country from 1967-1970, Wittwer was awarded numerous military honors and citations, including two purple hearts, the Vietnam cross of gallantry, a Navy unit citation, the Presidential unit citation, and the Vietnam campaign medal with five stars. Now, a quarter of a century later, Wittwer continues to collect medals—but now they come from his participation in VA’s national event programs.
In addition to the medals he won at the Creative Arts Festival and the Winter Sports Clinic, Wittwer has amassed an impressive collection from the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. In 2004, he won four—a gold in the slalom, two silvers in swimming and a bronze in softball. He adds last year’s medals to the two bronze, five silver and one gold he won the previous three years. At the annual Games, Wittwer’s favorite event is softball, but he also competes in basketball, swimming and slalom, a challenging, timed obstacle course for wheelchair users.
“It is always a great experience to come to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games and see the great competition as well as the camaraderie among the competitors,” Wittwer said. “It is good to see the familiar faces and terrific to meet new people who are here for the first time, enjoying the experience of this competition.”
Wittwer worked as a schoolteacher for three years and later as a social worker at a Duluth hospital. Always athletic, he continued to compete in sports after a serious car accident left him requiring a wheelchair, in order to stay active and still be a part of a team. At the Wheelchair Games, he competes in the paraplegic class but he is also an amputee.
“I love coming back to the National Veterans Wheel-chair Games year after year,” Wittwer said. “Participating in this event inspires me to do my best.” Wittwer’s best is worth observing. Come to the games and see for yourself!
From the Depth of Despair to the Height of Success
Ric Jost, 54, of Apple Valley, MN, is a Vietnam veteran who served in the Army from 1970-71. “I picked up some really bad habits (while there),” Jost says. In 1973, he was involved in a motor vehicle accident which resulted in paralysis.
After years of drug and alcohol abuse as well as skirmishes with the law, Jost made an important decision. “On March 10, 1980, I dumped all the alcohol, flushed all the drugs, and began a life of sobriety, which I am fortunate to still have to this day. Being sober was just the beginning, though. I started getting more active in my community and in sports, patched up old relationships with family and friends, and learned how to live all over again.”
In 1981, Jost was one of the original 74 veterans who competed in the very first National Veterans Wheelchair Games, held that year in Richmond, VA. “Things were different then,” he says. “I had sobered up the year before but there was still no direction in my life. I approached the local coach and told him I wanted to be a part of this. I went on to compete in the second and third annual Games, but the lessons I learned that first time remain with me to this day—finish what you start and believe in yourself.”
After moving to Minnesota in 1986, Jost started working and teaching Healthsports (health through Sports) to disabled persons within the community. Although he contends that he doesn’t have many athletic skills, he has continued to compete in the Games over the years as well as more than 15 long distance marathons on his handcycle. “It has been great watching this sport develop and getting my friends out riding. I am usually happiest when I am out on a 40-mile ride or just cruising on my handcycle by myself,” he says. He now rides more than 1,000 miles a year on his handcycle and plans to compete in both handcycling and bowling at the Games this year.
The years from 1981 to 2005 have been quite a transition, both for the Games and for Jost. The event has gone from a little over 70 competitors to more than 500, and the level of competition has also increased. Now the Executive Director of the Minnesota Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Jost is excited to have the 2005 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in his home state. He has taken on a busy role with the local organizing committee, helping prepare for the upcoming event. “Our Chapter is honored to be co-hosting the 2005 event, along with the Minneapolis VA Medical Center,” he said. “I have seen a glimpse of the commitment it takes to make these Games a success,” he says. “The Games are a real team effort that take many hours of preparation and a willingness to compromise.”
Jost now believes in himself, has finished what he started, and has come a very long way from his days in Vietnam. “These days, I find myself sober, employed, and I have the honor of working for veterans. What an incredible time to be involved in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games!”
Athlete and Outdoors Man
There are no boundaries—and seemingly no limits—for Ebert, an experienced wheelchair athlete from Brainerd, MN, who looks forward to having this year’s National Veterans Wheelchair Games in his home state. Ebert, 58, has attended the National Veterans Wheelchair Games for the past five years, acquiring 18 medals during that time, thirteen of which are gold.
A combat veteran of Vietnam, Ebert served in the U.S. Navy with the search and rescue unit from 1966-1970. One Labor Day weekend after his return home, Ebert was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him a paraplegic. An avid fan of the outdoors, the injury did not stop him from continuing to enjoy activities like hunting and fishing, however. Ebert is currently involved with “Camp Courage,” a local program for people with disabilities, assisting with an event called “Fishing has no Boundaries.” At the 2004 program, 75 disabled individuals participated in a weekend of events and a full day of fishing, using 40 boats in the process.
Like many local wheelchair athletes, Ebert is excited that the 25th National Games will be held so close to home. “I think it’s great that more family members and friends can come and support the local athletes, and see what we are always talking about,” he said. His one regret is that he didn’t start participating in the Games sooner. “I’m getting older and it’s getting tougher to compete,” Ebert said. “But the enjoyment is still there when seeing old friends and meeting new ones.”
At the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Ebert’s competitive events include track, field (discus, shot-put and javelin), air guns and archery, which are his favorite. “I shoot a lot of arrows,” Ebert said, to prepare for that competition. “As soon as it gets nice out I start, and I shoot anywhere from 100 to 300 arrows a day.” A member of the Minnesota Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Ebert receives his healthcare at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis. Both organizations are hosting the 2005 Games.
Ebert invites all of his fellow veterans, friends and family members to come to the Games in Minneapolis this June, to watch the events and catch the excitement that always comes along with them. His passion and enthusiasm have no boundaries – and there are no limits to the fun just waiting on the Minnesota horizon.
I’ll Be Here Every Year!
Nicholas Suckow, 38, may be a quadriplegic but a strong spirit of competition still burns brightly within him. For the past decade, this U.S. Army veteran has been a regular competitor in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. ”I kept seeing the Games advertised in Paraplegia News magazine and decided to check it out,” he said. Based on the medals he has won and the friends he has met over the past ten years, it was a good decision.
“I keep coming back because we are a team—we root for each other and yet in competition we all want to be the best,” Suckow said. “It also gives me a chance to catch up on the friendships I have made at the Games.”
At the annual event, he competes in the bowling events, the motorized wheelchair slalom, the “powerchair 220” race and the motorized wheelchair rally. In all of his events, Suckow uses mouth controls to power his wheelchair and takes great efforts to attend, being the only athlete who is completely ventilator dependant. Because of an automobile accident that left him a quadriplegic, Suckow typically requires care around the clock. But at the Wheelchair Games, his disabilities don’t deter impressive results.
At the 2004 National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Suckow came home with three medals, two golds for bowling and the 220-meter race, and a bronze for his efforts in the slalom competition, an event that calls for agility, speed and strength around a challenging obstacle course. He won three other medals in both 2003 and 2002, and his collection keeps growing. The gleam of gold is not what motivates this athlete, however. “I’m not competing with only the hopes of wearing gold,” Suckow said. “I hope to make friends that will last for years. We chat and share stories, tears, and laughter.”
“Every year I look forward to this and every year I try to make it. Some years it gets difficult—because of health reasons—but other than that, I’ll be here every year.”
Keep on Dreaming!
U.S. Army veteran Jerry Price, 45, of Minneapolis, MN, has required a wheelchair to compete in sports since he contracted spinal meningitis from a mosquito bite six years ago. The injury resulted in peripheral neuropathy, severe weakness in both of his legs. The injury has not stopped his drive, however. Price has competed in the last three National Veterans Wheelchair Games in the handcycling, weightlifting and track events, and three of the field competitions – shot-put, discus and javelin.
According to Price, being on the wrestling team in high school taught him that “it’s not the one who is the strongest or the one who can lift the most—it’s the one with the best technique and form.” His technique and form were clearly in good shape at the 2004 National Veterans Wheelchair Games in St. Louis, allowing Price to come home with two medals, a bronze in javelin and a gold in weightlifting, his favorite event. They were added to his growing collection from the Games which include two other bronze medals and another gold from the previous two years.
For Price, competition doesn’t end with sports. An artist and a poet as well as an athlete, Price also competes in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in the visual art division, winning at the local level several times. Now, one of his goals is to complete his art degree so that he can become an art instructor for children with disabilities.
Price says, “Competing in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games has given me my life back. It has brought me accomplishments and hope for the future, camaraderie and friendships that I might not have had otherwise. The Games provide a sense of hope, and they have enriched my life and enhanced my self-esteem. The athletes all share a common bond of service to our country. It is fun to compete in the Games.”
Price’s philosophy in life is reflected in the advice he gives others. “Be a seeker and a climber. Keep on dreaming and believing in yourself—and never ever give up!”
Games start June 27 with an expo at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
For more information, visit the NVWG website located at http://www.wheelchairgames.org/. Come and join the fun!