For years, representatives of a local wheelchair manufacturer have traveled as far away as Alaska and Puerto Rico to help athletes competing in the annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games. • This year, for the first time, they got to stay close to home. • Pinellas Park-based Top End and its parent company, Invacare, served as national host sponsor for the games held July 13-18 in Tampa. Central to the role was ensuring all the sports wheelchairs and handcycles were in prime working order.
More than 600 wheelchair athletes from across the United States and Great Britain took part in the 33rd annual games. Veterans competed in 18 medal events from basketball and bowling to table tennis and track.
In preparation, Top End sent crews to Tampa International Airport to get wheelchairs on and off the planes and repair ones damaged during flights, which happens quite often. During the competitions, the company had fix-it stations at every event stocked with spare tires, wheels, brakes, spokes, seat straps and anything else needed to get someone back in the game.
"When someone is using a chair for mobility, if it isn't moving properly, they can't move," said Mary Carol Peterson, Top End's marketing and customer service manager.
The games attracted athletes ages 18 to 90 who use wheelchairs as a result of a spinal cord injury, certain neurological conditions, amputations or other mobility impairments. Participants ranged from veterans recently injured in Iraq or Afghanistan to veterans of World World II.
Top End supplied many of the sports wheelchairs. Each chair is custom-made at its 15,000-square-foot factory in an industrial pocket of Pinellas Park by a 30-member team of welders, painters, upholsterers, assemblers and office staff.
Founded by Chris Peterson, the company designs, manufacturers and markets sports wheelchairs and handcycles that retail for $2,300 for a basic recreational wheelchair to $12,000 for a competition handcycle with carbon wheels. In 1993, Top End was acquired by Invacare Corp., a publicly traded medical equipment manufacturer headquartered in Elyria, Ohio.
Top End, which produces about 2,500 wheelchairs and handcycles a year, has annual sales of about $8 million and is looking to move into a larger space. Its commitment to the games amounts to about $150,000 a year.
The company's sponsorship raises awareness of its products but also provides a chance to give back to its customers, many of whom served in the military, said Mary Carol Peterson, the founder's wife. Sports wheelchairs can further people's rehabilitation goals and help in their mental and physical recovery.
"We like to say, 'Life doesn't stop when you're in a wheelchair. It just keeps going,' " she said, noting the company's name reflects a person's ultimate performance.
Hosting the games was a coup for the company and the entire Tampa Bay region, said Paul Schulte, a design engineer for Top End and co-captain of the U.S. Paralympics wheelchair basketball team.
"It makes me very proud that our wheelchairs are used in the games," said Schulte, who has a basketball wheelchair named after him. "Some of these athletes are super competitive and some are just getting introduced to a sport."
Cohosted by the James A. Haley VA Medical Center and the Florida Gulf Coast Paralyzed Veterans of America, the games were held at the Tampa Convention Center, Tampa Bay Times Forum, Raymond James Stadium and other area venues. It was just the second time the games were held in Florida. Miami played host in 1991.
Chris Peterson said it was exciting to be able to help with the games in his own back yard. Buying U.S.-made products is a strong appeal for many of the participants.
"These are the Olympics for veterans," he said. "We like to support each other."
Nathalie Reece, logistical manager of the games, said she isn't surprised a company like Invacare/Top End has been a main supporter for all these years.
"Once you have been a part of the games, you become friends and extended families of these people," she said. "It opens your eyes to what you take for granted every day."
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.