Some 50 disabled veterans came out to the Samuel C. Pannell Community Center in Meadowview Thursday morning to play wheelchair softball on the center’s rubberized field, throw javelins across the grass and scuba dive in the center’s heated pool.
This athletic gathering followed a press conference announcing that the Department of Veterans Affairs, in partnership with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), has selected Sacramento’s Access Leisure as the recipient of a $150,000 grant for the second year in a row.
Mayor Kevin Johnson, Congresswoman Doris Matsui, Congressman Dan Lungren and Congressman Tom McClintock were in attendance along with Paralympians and Army veterans Craig Vogtsberger and Patrick McDonald.
Founded in 1996, Access Leisure, which includes the Paralympic Sport Club of Sacramento, is the branch of the Department of Parks and Leisure responsible for creating sports and recreational opportunities for Sacramento’s disabled community.
An official partner of the USOC, the Paralympic Club of Sacramento funds 11 programs locally which allow individuals to participate in adaptive sports like sled hockey, track and field, handcycling, goalball (a sport played by blind and low-vision athletes that involves preventing a bell-filled ball from crossing the goal line), quad rugby (rugby played with special “rugby wheelchairs” by athletes with physical disabilities that affect all four limbs), wheelchair basketball, wheelchair tennis and swimming.
The grant will allow Access Leisure-supported groups like the Sacramento Lightning Sled Hockey team, an all-ages club for athletes with lower body disabilities, to continue to recruit new members and practice at Skatetown Roseville.
Annie Desalernos, program director for Access Leisure said that one of the reasons sports in particular are so helpful to the rehabilitation process for veterans is that their professional experience has cemented in them the importance of physical fitness.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs identified this as a critical need because soldiers are athletes,” she said.
Those veterans who are identified as being good candidates to compete on the Paralympic level can apply to attend the USOC Military Sports Camp, where athletes learn about summer and winter sports opportunities and attend clinics hosted by Paralympic athletes and coaches, Desalernos said.
McDonald, a Paralympian in wheelchair curling, table tennis and shooting, noted that the point of having sports integrated into a veteran’s rehabilitation is to “get you back into your community” with activities that are good for your health, are fun and allow you to meet people.
He said that he’s always been “an athlete at heart,” and knew that after his injury, he would need to redefine his professional sports goals.
“After being hurt, I knew I wasn’t going to be kicking any field goals,” he said.
Instead, McDonald became the No. 1-ranked wheelchair golfer in the country while securing the world record for longest drive from a wheelchair, at 358 yards.
McDonald said that while he chose to go the Paralympic route, that’s not the only way to compete in adaptive sports. He said he knows a lot of people who participate in the National VA Wheelchair Games, the largest wheelchair sporting event in the world, who are skilled enough to go on to the Paralympics, but choose not to.
An at-home dad, McDonald said he also participates in hand-cycling and softball to stay in shape.
For Allen Huck, an Army veteran and a participant in the day’s pick-up baseball game, sports are just as much about building relationships as they are about being physically active and have made “a huge difference in the rehabilitation process.”
“Being around other veterans who share similar experiences lets you know you’re not the only one who has gone through a traumatic event,” he said.
He said he is thankful for those who have expended the time and resources necessary to ensure that physical activities are made available to disabled veterans.
“I don’t think we could ever show our complete gratitude or explain completely what these programs do,” he said.
Sonya Norris, associate director of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Military Program, noted that physical activity is an essential ingredient in helping disabled veterans lead fulfilling lives.
“It’s been proven that access to sports and leisure, regardless of ability or disability, significantly enhances quality of life,” she said.
She added that funding access to recreation at a local, “grassroots” level is especially important because that is where people feel the most comfortable participating.
“Whether it’s going out to play a game of baseball, or getting together with some guys to play basketball, having access close to home, where you’re comfortable … will significantly enhance any individual’s ability to have a better quality of life.”
Author’s note: Amy Wong also contributed to this article.