Some events have the GRIT team feeling excited a few days before we fly out; others change the energy in the office up to a week or two beforehand. However, there are some annual events with the kind of clout that reaches beyond a couple of days, or weeks, or even entire months. We literally look forward to these events all year long. For GRIT—and for thousands of others like us—the National Veterans Wheelchair Games (NVWG) is one of those events.
The NVWG have been around for over 39 years, and as soon as GRIT was able, we added them to our annual “must-attend” list. More than 600 wheelchair veterans congregate to these games each year to compete in 19 different events. The July 2019 games were an absolute whirlwind of competition, camaraderie, honor, and community development. They provided our team the chance to connect with riders, organizations, and therapists; most importantly, though, we were able to listen, without filter or technology between us, to the veterans themselves. We left the games just as we do every year—proud beyond measure to help direct the spotlight toward those who most deserve it.
The Expo: Big Red, Big Wheels, Big Fun
The events at the 2019 NVWG were spread across multiple days—Day 1 was an expo that gave organizations the chance to present their programs and products. The Kentucky International Convention Center, which features over 200,000 square feet of exhibit space, was jam-packed for this event! GRIT came to the expo with a couple of Freedom Chairs, some incredible rider friends, and the next-best thing to a muddy trail in the middle of the woods: A colossal, beautiful, bright-red obstacle.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen our riders conquer ultramarathons, obstacle course races (OCRs), 14,000-foot mountain summits, and log thousands of literal miles in their Freedom Chairs, so we figured it was only fitting to unleash an obstacle like Big Red onto the NVWG. This behemoth measured about two feet high and twelve feet long, featuring two precarious lips and an angled summit. Veterans lined up for the chance to tackle Big Red, experience the chair’s intuitive lever strokes, and enjoy the Freedom Chair’s 26” mountain bike tires as they cruised over the sloping obstacle surface. Big Red also gave folks the chance to enjoy the Freedom Chair’s “hill-hold feature,” which prevents riders from rolling backward down difficult inclines. Check out Logan from Virginia and Jai from Hawaii cruising Big Red, both smiling the whole time. Logan’s reaction after his first ride? "You don't have to be really strong to do it. It's awesome!"
The GRIT team was accompanied by Freedom Chair Ambassador Ty Hockett, who wowed folks with his accomplishments in the GRIT Freedom Chair and his tips for adaptive hunting. Ty regularly hunts geese and other waterfowl and is also an accomplished bowman, outdoorsperson, dog-father, and general adventure junkie. Ty’s wealth of experience in the Freedom Chair, paired with his no-excuses, get-out-there mentality helped him connect with veterans and visitors looking to learn about this lever-driven, all-terrain wheelchair they keep hearing about. GRIT extends a huge “thank you” to Ty and his wife for dedicating so much of their own time to helping us get veterans outside and beyond the pavement.
Day 1 of the expo also featured a presentation by GRIT CEO, Tish Scolnik, on a topic that has been close to her heart since she co-founded GRIT years ago—the therapeutic benefits of outdoor recreation. Getting outside and enjoying the outdoors are at the core of our team values, and this becomes even more exigent in the context of the American veteran.
In fact, as Outdoors Magazine says, “Studies show that outdoor-recreation therapy is effective at decreasing the symptoms of PTSD and helping veterans reintegrate with civilian life.” Whether achieved through hiking, competing in OCRs, or activities like hunting and fishing, the benefits of outdoor recreation are as obvious as they are often overlooked. Unfortunately, these opportunities become difficult—often impossible—for wounded veterans and first responders, simply because they don’t have the tools to access these terrains. Products like the GRIT Freedom Chair aim to change that. GRIT CEO Scolnik presented to advocate for these outdoor activities and also learn from the VA therapists in attendance. Like the GRIT team, these therapists work daily with wheelchair riders looking to get outdoors; we thank the therapists in attendance for their teamwork, their attention, and their efforts to make all-terrain accessibility less of a goal and more of a universal reality.
After Tish’s presentation, Day 1 flew by, as she and the GRIT team continued to meet with veterans from all over the country, hear their stories, and chase to keep up with them as they tested out the Freedom Chair. Here are some action shots from the day:
. . . And all of this was just day one!
National Veterans Wheelchair Games: They’re Off!
Following the expo was the real meat of the weekend—back-to-back-to-back days of actual NVWG competition. While the GRIT team’s vocal chords were a bit on the fritz from the busy expo day, we were more than able to holler and cheer like maniacs during quad rugby, soccer, and slalom competitions. Other events included swimming, powerlifting, trap shooting, basketball, and more.
One of the Freedom Chair riders who joined us at the NVWG was United States Air Force veteran, Chris Wolff. Wolff, who received a Freedom Chair through the Semper Fi Fund, competed in the 2018 Para-Spartan Elite Race in Laughlin, NV, the 2019 Red Bull 400, and just recently competed a Spartan Sprint and Spartan Super (both in the same weekend) out in Utah. Needless to say, Wolff is a beast of an athlete, and is softened only by an adoring family affectionately referred to as the “Wolff Pack.” Chris and the Wolff Pack quickly became assets to the GRIT NVWG team, and we are so thrilled for the chance to spend some time with him. And oh, we almost forgot to mention: Wolff won the gold medal in the NVWG archery competition.
Super G: For the Tough and the Tough Alone
The 19 NVWG events each gave veterans the chance to showcase their athleticism, their ability to work independently and collaboratively, and their drive to compete on a level (or not-so-level) playing field. Perhaps the grittiest event of them all was the Super G: A multistage race course absolutely littered with OCR-inspired obstacles. Qualifying wheelchair veterans competed in two-athlete heats through the Spear Throw, the Hercules Hoist, the sand trap, multiple ramps, and a final salute to Old Glory. The NVWG attendees swarmed the Super G course to watch these athletes compete, and GRIT extends a huge congratulations to Marine Corps veteran, Tim Conner, who took home Super G gold!
We think it is impossible to leave an event like the NVWG without an overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Thank you to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), and UPS for making this entire event possible. Thank you to the coaches and families who support these athletes. And most of all, thank you to the veterans, who remind us every day what it means to live with grit.
See you next July in Portland, Oregon for the 40th National Veteran Wheelchair Games!