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Planning put to test as Tampa greets wheelchair athletes

TAMPA

To prepare for Thursday's arrival of British Airways Flight 2167 from London, airport workers coordinated buses, luggage carts and dozens of extra wheelchairs.

The volunteers and employees made trips to Gate 89, pushing the empty wheelchairs — thin ones to fit in the jetliner's aisle and regular-sized ones to go through the terminal.

While this exercise for the first wave of arrivals provided a sort of dry run Thursday, the unusual logistics cap nearly a year of local planning for Tampa to be ready to host the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which start Saturday and run through Thursday.

The games will attract hundreds of wheelchair athletes from around the country and Great Britain to compete in events such as rifle shooting, track and field, and basketball.

"The airport is used to handling people in wheelchairs, but not this many," said Emily Nipps, a Tampa International Airport spokeswoman. "We'll have, in an eight-hour period, 300 wheelchair athletes."

To accommodate them, the airport has been working with event organizers for 10 months, including giving a team of 75 volunteers special training in lifting wheelchairs and people using wheelchairs.

Organizers have struck a deal with UPS as well to provide transportation for the athletes' luggage from the planes to the downtown Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina — the games' official hotel — so they don't have to worry about pulling bags off the baggage-claim belts.

Tampa is one of the few cities where all of the athletes can stay at one hotel, a plus when it comes to transporting people to events. The hotel will have a medical suite in case someone gets hurt.

Participants in the games range from veterans recently injured in Iraq and Afghanistan to veterans of World War II.

Bill Heitzig, the hotel's resident manager, said the staff has made several modifications to meet the athletes' needs, from installing handheld shower heads in some rooms to lowering some of the beds. The hotel also plans to open the three service elevators to speed up the flow of people getting to and from their rooms.

"We're honored to have them here,'' he said. "It gives us a chance to serve those who have served us.''

Organizers said they choose the Marriott because of its large, first-story lobby, proximity to the Tampa Convention Center and big bathrooms with doors at least 27 inches wide. Tile floors help, said consultant Tom Brown. "If the carpet is too thick, it's like pushing through mud.''

The 719-room hotel is sold out for the games, which will be held at the convention center, Tampa Bay Times Forum, Raymond James Stadium and other venues.

The hotel typically has 28 handicapped accessible rooms, including two suites, but is making modifications as guests request them. Much like the Republican National Convention and other large events, the games are an "all-hands-on-deck'' situations for employees, Heitzig said. As needs arise, adjustments will be made throughout the week.

Along with the national competitors, the games annually invite a British team — the British Ex-Services Wheelchair Sports Association — to compete.

That group of 11 athletes and two coaches was the first to arrive at the airport Thursday — a test-run for the other wheelchair athletes aged 18 to 90 coming into the airport today.

The British team came through the customs line with matching shirts and smiles as they headed toward waiting buses.

Paul "Jacko" Jackson is the official flag-bearer for the team, his chair is adapted with a flagpole stand to keep his arms free while he pushes his chair. He's a certified scuba diver and competes in basketball, softball, discus, javelin and — this year — water skiing.

He's been going to the games for 15 years.

"You come here, have a few drinks, meet old friends, meet new friends," he said. "Everyone's job here is to get everyone here to come back again."

Event organizers, such as Dr. Kevin White, said that all the planning should mean the games will go off without a hitch.

"It's a dream come true," said White, co-chairman of the games and chief of spinal cord injuries at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center. "To see the city get ready is a phenomenal feat."

Wheelchair games

The 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games kick off Saturday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. Opening ceremonies are at 6 p.m. Saturday. Competition begins at 7:30 a.m. Sunday with handcycling races on Bayshore Boulevard. Most events are at the Tampa Convention Center with a handful scattered at locations throughout Tampa. Events are free to watch. For more information, go to pva.org/games2013.

Planning put to test as Tampa greets wheelchair athletes 07/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 10:30am]
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