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National Veterans Wheelchair Games take over Tampa this week

TAMPA

Holly Koster checked the brakes on her handcycle, tightened its three wheels and slid from her wheelchair into the seat.

The bike had traveled two days, from Cleveland to Tampa, in the back of a truck. Now, inside the Tampa Convention Center on Saturday, she wanted to make sure nothing had come loose.

It needed to be in top shape for this morning. The 10K handcycling race is first on the list of events at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, held in Tampa this week.

But as she began a test drive, using only upper arm strength to propel the bike forward, Koster couldn't seem to pick up speed.

She turned around and found the problem staring her in the face: fellow wheelchair athlete Laura Schwanger had latched on, trying to catch a free ride.

"You don't know how bad you freaked me out," Koster yelled, a smile on her face. "I thought I was having brake problems."

All around the Tampa Convention Center on Saturday, similar scenes unfolded.

Friends reunited. Fierce athletes measured up the competition. And volunteers flooded the halls, assisting the nearly 650 wheelchair attendees in town for the event.

Touted as the largest annual wheelchair sports event in the world, the week features military veterans who use wheelchairs because of spinal cord injuries, amputations or other neurological disorders. They compete in sports ranging from bowling to softball to quad rugby.

Opening ceremonies at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Saturday night officially kicked off the event.

Koster, 53, has participated in the games every year since 1991. An Army veteran, Koster was injured in an automobile accident while on duty and thought her sports days were over. "These games are life-changing, whether you're a spectator or a participant," she said. "It shows that just because we are in a chair, it hasn't taken away any of our competitiveness."

Each year she likes to try something new. This week, she competes in the handcycle race, air rifle, swimming, nine-ball and field competitions. "I'm a master at none, but I have a good time," she said.

Schwanger, 54, on the other hand, has taken her talents to the Paralympics four times, competing in track and field. The St. Petersburg resident only plays for fun now, but said wheelchair sports helped show her there was life after a multiple sclerosis diagnosis ended her Army career in 1982. "It was a good way to stay positive," Schwanger said. "It's great for those recently injured service men and women, too," she said, "for them to see what they can do with the rest of their lives."

An exhibition basketball game Saturday morning pitting experienced wheelchair athletes against local celebrities, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, provided a glimpse of what spectators can expect this week.

"It was very difficult," said Buckhorn, who, dressed in khakis and loafers, managed to score at least one basket from his wheelchair during the short game. "It makes you really appreciate what these disabled veterans go through every day. It's inspiring."

Andy Bernt of South Tampa has competed in the games several years in a row. Bernt, 52, served in the Air Force for several years and then as a civilian firefighter at MacDill for another 18 years before lymphoma forced him into retirement in 2005.

His events this year include weightlifting (where he once lifted 400 pounds), basketball, softball, table tennis and discus.

Because the games are taking place in his back yard, he has been serving as tour guide, suggesting his friends check out Ybor City and the trolley. He also hopes locals recognize what is going on around them.

"I believe the community should come out and watch," he said. "Cheer us on. We can hear that when we are out there."

.fAST FACTS

If you go

The 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games competition begins at 7:30 a.m. today 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.

National Veterans Wheelchair Games take over Tampa this week 07/13/13 [Last modified: Sunday, July 14, 2013 1:11am]
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