As William Mott watched the balls bounce from one end of the tables to the other, his stomach did flips. He hadn't played table tennis since childhood. He was nervous. "I don't want to let myself down and I don't want to let my team down," he said. His only goal: "Hit the ball." He shouldn't have been worried. Mott, who friends call Tigger, earned the bronze medal for his division at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games held in Tampa this week. Mott, 50, dominated the first match he played, sending him into the final round. A judge only had to interrupt him once to make sure Mott was presenting the ball to his opponent and not gripping it before serving.
"I ain't spinning, believe me. I don't even know how to do any of that stuff," Mott told him.
There had been no time to practice leading up to the games. A Navy veteran who was paralyzed more than 20 years ago, Mott lives at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center. He had been on bed rest until recently and is surprised he even made it to the games.
In its 33rd year, the games are open to any veteran in a wheelchair who wants to participate. Sports range from table tennis to air rifle to wheelchair slalom. This year, the six-day event held at the Tampa Convention Center attracted 650 athletes.
And for those who are there for the first time, such as Mott, it can be an eye-opening event.
"This should be a must rather then something people just say they'll maybe try," said newcomer Sam Bell, a Marine veteran from Brandon. "It goes far beyond fun. This is therapy."
Bell, 34, who was first injured in Iraq and then paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident last year, said watching so many people in a similar situation as him — pushing themselves to be their best — was inspiring.
"Being in a wheelchair is like nothing anyone could prepare for," he said. "But whether or not you do something with it is up to you."
Bell competed in the 10-kilometer handcycle race, air guns, table tennis, bowling and slalom. He hadn't won any awards yet, but said he had fun seeing what he could do.
Mott competed in the air guns event earlier in the week and said it took a few practice rounds to get the hang of it.
"It's a lot harder than I thought it would be," he said. "Picking up that air rifle, I had no idea what to do. How do you shoot it? What eye do you close?"
A diehard Tampa Bay Bucs fan, Mott is no stranger to sports. He is just not usually the athlete. With the ends of his long brown hair dyed red (Go Bucs!) and space-age sunglasses wrapped over the top of his head, Mott is hard to miss.
Calling him Tigger — because he's a bouncy guy, he said — volunteers stopped to say hi Tuesday, recognizing him from the hospital, where he has lived for the past several years.
Mott served as a cook aboard an aircraft carrier for four years, beginning in 1983. He went to Japan, Korea and Hawaii before heading to San Diego. He had just re-enlisted for another four years in 1986 when he went out to a bar with some fellow crew mates in San Diego. A man searching for his ex-wife came in and opened fire. Mott was struck in the back of his neck and left arm, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
In 2002, a car accident caused him to lose his left leg. Then a break in his right leg made it too difficult to move himself around. That's when Haley became home.
He misses cooking for himself the most, he said. But he stays busy going to Bucs games, for which he has season tickets, and tailgating with the group "What the Buc?" painting his face for every event.
This week's games gave him something to look forward to in the offseason.
"It gives him another reason to get up in the morning," said Bernadette Hoffman, his recreational therapist at Haley, "to keep going, a goal to work toward."
Now, he can't wait to do it again. Next year, the games move to Philadelphia and Mott has archery and softball on his list.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.