It has been six years since Brent King last participated in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
But with this year’s 29th edition of the Games playing out in his own hometown this week, the former football player at Davenport High School and graduate of Eastern Washington University figures it is time to stage a comeback.
King, who became wheelchair-ridden in 1994 when he fell 22 feet and broke his back on an obstacle course, will be among 600 disabled veterans from the United States, Puerto Rico and Great Britain expected to take part in the 2009 Games, which open on Monday and run through Saturday.
Competition will be offered in 17 different events that will be staged in and around Spokane. And King, who has claimed several gold medals in past Games, plans to challenge himself – and his fellow competitors – in the air rifle event and the wheelchair slalom, which is a timed obstacle course.
“Go figure,” King said of his decision to take on the obstacle course.
Because it was on a grueling obstacle course that King suffered his catastrophic injury, falling from a rope that had been whipped by another competitor’s sudden dismount, and landing on his neck and shoulders.
“All I remember is hearing that rope crack like a whip,” he explained. “It threw me off, and I woke up three weeks later. I don’t remember a thing. But the back surgery didn’t hurt at all.”
A little over a year after suffering his fall and returning to the Pacific Northwest to do his post-surgery rehab, King was talked into competing in his first National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which were held in Atlanta.
“It was spooky to me to go back down to Georgia after breaking my back there,” admitted King, who now works as a general contractor and mortgage broker, while also helping his wife, Joli, raise their 8-year-old twins, Cheyenne and Skyler.
“I really didn’t want to go back there, but I’m glad I did. It really opened my eyes to what events were out there, and what we could do with all of the new equipment that is introduced each year.”
According to King, who serves as vice president of the Northwest Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Games also work well as a means of social networking with disabled veterans facing similar challenges.
“The first year you participate, it’s really more about familiarization and meeting all those older veterans from World War II, Vietnam, Korea and right up to the present day,” he said. “You might see a triple-amputee from Iraq or Afghanistan talking with the president of the Disabled American Veterans, who has the same injuries, and he can ask him directly, ‘How do you deal with this, this and this?’
“That’s what that first year is, is mentoring, which can be a major step in the rehab process.”
From there, though, the Games get competitive – depending on the individual.
“Some choose to sit at home and do nothing, but that isn’t always the case,” said King, who enlisted in the Army while still in high school and attended EWU on a full-ride ROTC scholarship, earning a degree in criminal justice before starting his military obligation. “How active you remain usually depends on how you were before your injury and how you were raised. Most people don’t change. You just find a way to adapt, or you don’t.”
For King, adapting has become a part of his life. And he takes advantage of every new device on the market – like the iBOT power chair he purchased at the first of the year just before the model was discontinued.
“It climbs stairs and raises me up to where my head is at six feet, so I can paint and stuff again,” said King, who is a member of the Safari Club International and an avid hunter. “Before I got hurt, I was 9-feet tall and bulletproof, and in my mind, I still am.”
And his new powered chair helps keep him thinking that way.
“Each person deals with their disability differently,” King added. “You have to focus on what you can still do, instead of what you can’t, or it gets really frustrating.
“And I think the Veterans Wheelchair Games serve as a great stepping stone in the healing process by giving you a chance to prove to yourself – and others – what you can still do.”
Since committing to competing again this year, King has noticed a change in his own demeanor. And so has his wife.
“She told me it seems like my morale is up,” King explained, “and it probably is. Competing in the Games is like hitting a refresh button for me. When you have all those veterans around you, it’s like being with brothers in arms, because you all have everything in common.
“And for that one week, all the walking people are the oddballs.”