Vicki Emmerson waited for opening ceremonies at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games to begin Monday night in the Spokane Arena, checking to make sure she had the most important item in her bag, besides a camera.
“Kleenex,” Emmerson said. She had tissue in one hand, and a U.S. flag in the other.
It was the first time Emmerson had come to watch her father-in-law, Thomas Emmerson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who served in the Vietnam War, participate in the annual competition for disabled veterans.
The games — the largest wheelchair event in the nation — is presented by the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Athletes will compete in 17 events over five days, with closing ceremonies set for Saturday at the Spokane Convention Center.
“I think we can’t do enough for our veterans,” said Emmerson, flanked by her husband, Terrance. “We need to be reminded freedom isn’t free.”
The proud families, supporters and thousands of volunteers may have been misty-eyed as the athletes wheeled out state by state, but the more than 600 athletes were all smiles and “oohrahs!”
The athletes, from nearly every state, Puerto Rico and Great Britain, gathered backstage waiting to wheel out on the arena floor. The ceremony included a torch lighting, and athletes shouted into megaphones and patted each other on the back.
“This is the first time many of them have seen each other in a year,” said coach and Army veteran Troy Hicks, from Memphis, Tenn.
More than competitive spirit and dealing with challenges in the face of adversity, the games are about camaraderie and friendship, Hicks said.
The athletes range in age from 18 to over 80.
“We really look forward to it every year,” said David Bradbury, a disabled Army veteran and prosthetic specialist from South Carolina.
Bradbury said he was eager to see how Spokane measures up, in terms of handicap access. One year at the games in New York City, all 700 athletes stayed in one hotel and had access to what he called the best transportation system in the country.
“It will be a test for Spokane,” Bradbury said. “But so far it’s been great.”
Earlier in the day, the head of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs said the games are not about athletes with disabilities.
“The games are all about heart,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said at the kickoff ceremony. “There are no disabilities in these games. It’s about living life differently.”
The games include U.S. veterans of every conflict since World War II, plus veterans from Great Britain and South Korea, he said. It’s real competition, not a “walk-away contest,” and a chance to show that despite their injuries they are “a part of our landscape and doing well.”
A dozen or so of the wheelchair athletes staged a basketball competition in the breezeway of the Convention Center. About halfway through they invited members of the news media and local government and military leaders to join them on the court, in wheelchairs.
When it came time to shoot, the dignitaries mostly missed, despite being fed the ball and not being blocked.
“Aaaaiirr baaalll,” the crowd chanted as the shots went up and came down, often nowhere near the hoop.
More than 500 athletes will compete in games all over town, from Whitworth University and Spokane Falls Community College to the Spokane Valley Gun Club and the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. City Council President Joe Shogan declared “Let the games begin” at the rain-dampened kickoff before participating in the basketball game.
“Your dedication, your athleticism is something to be admired,” Shogan said, encouraging the athletes to see and do as much as possible in Spokane before the games end Saturday. “We have good weather – tomorrow.”
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