Not long after multiple sclerosis struck Laura Schwanger, she found an outlet for her competitive urge.
The former solider became involved in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games.
“Wheelchair sports were my reason for getting out of bed,” the 50-year old from Philadelphia said. “I think this is my 12th one … over 20 years.
“I believe it’s my mission to encourage other disabled individuals, particularly women veterans, to participate in the Games. The first time I think there were 35 women and it seemed like none of us did the same sports. We never saw each other.”
That has changed for the 29th annual Games, which conclude today in Spokane.
It’s Schwanger’s first trip to the games in seven years. A bulk of that time was spent dealing with breast cancer. To rebuild strength she took up rowing and she earned a bronze medal at the Paralympics in China.
That’s why these games are no longer about competition for Schwanger.
“I have so much fun,” she said. “I don’t care so much for the competition. It’s the camaraderie.”
That seemed to be the theme Friday at Spokane Falls Community College, where the track and field events took place.
“For me, it’s always the camaraderie,” Emma Burns said of her fourth competition. “For one week a year I don’t have to have a conversation with a waist.”
Schwanger and Burns compete in the Open division, but Schwanger is Level III and Burns Level IV. There is also a Novice Division for first-year athletes and Masters, for those older than 40. Within each division are classes determined by physical ability: three quadriplegic levels (classifications 1A, 1B, 1C) and four paraplegic or amputee levels (classifications II, III, IV, V). The higher the classification number, the less disabling the condition.
Burns traveled from her home in England.
“I love being competitive, but here it is more than being competitive,” she said. “It’s encouraging people to enjoy sport. Sport can change your life. It gives you a goal.”
Burns, 28, was pensioned out of the Royal Navy in 2001 because of a knee injury and two days later was injured in a motorcycle accident.
“It takes thousands of nuts to build a motorcycle and only one behind the wheel of a car to take it apart,” she said with her typical humor. “I’ve done my grieving.”
It took her four years to find her outlet.
“Life was dull,” the university student said. “I was quite closed. I didn’t realize the opportunities that were out there.”
Like her friendly rivals, she wants that to change.
“We need to get women involved,” Burns said. “There are quite a few things available, but it attracts more males. I think more can be done to attract females … they’re out there.”
One of the newbies is Amy Riter, from Canton, Ohio.
She was a machinists’ mate in the Navy when she suffered a knee injury.
“I would have made a career out of it,” Riter said.
Only 21 at the time, she moved on with life. Just after the birth of her daughter, who is 3½, she was diagnosed with von Hippel-Lindau Disease, a rare blood disease. About 20 months ago she went in for surgery and came out confined to a wheelchair.
She didn’t dwell on the outcome. She is already in her second year of competition.
“I couldn’t sit in a chair and do nothing,” Riter, 34, said. “I have a lot of living to do. This gives me a good way to get out and compete … hopefully, I can use it to inspire my kids and other people in my position.
“I can’t put words to how much fun I have. I have an empty feeling when it’s over and the next day I start looking forward to the next one.”
She learned quickly just how competitive the games are. As a novice in 9-ball, bowling, weight lifting, shot put and air rifle she won five golds but entered her last two competitions in the Level III Open division, the shot put and discus, without a gold.
“Open, that’s when you meet your competition,” Riter said. “You come up against people who are seasoned. You have to get your game on.”
That enthusiasm is what Chatriex Goodson of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., wants to hear from women.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” the Level III Open competitor said. “We need more women out here. It’s great seeing more women come out. We need to get the word out. There are not too many getting the opportunity.”
Goodson, 37, was in the Air Force 15 years ago when she was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was shot in an off-base incident. Almost 10 years passed, mostly spent recovering and going to school, before she found the Games.
Deborah Dones quickly gravitated to the Games.
It was five years ago the science teacher, now 39, was wounded in an ambush that killed her best friend in Iraq. She traveled from Puerto Rico for her fourth games.
“I wanted to try another state, feel the weather, feel the people,” she said.
To Dones, who has MS and is Level IV, it’s all about the people – the more the merrier – and she encourages more women not to be hesitant to join in.
“My first time, there were a few females, now there are a lot. I like more people. We have fun,” she said. “Come here. We can show you, we can teach you, we can pick you up and have fun. Don’t feel afraid.”