Sometimes just getting out the door is hard for Francisco Lopez-de-Victoria. His red wheelchair often gets wedged in the narrow frame of his apartment's front door. • "It's almost like jumping a hurdle every morning," the 63-year-old said.
It's a marked change from his earlier life in which he spent more than 25 years in the Navy and played softball internationally.
A simple back procedure in 2000 left him having to use a wheelchair. Now, grass is treacherous. Curbs are insurmountable.
He spent hours in his native Puerto Rico underneath a mango tree, counting crawling ants and slowly trekking the path toward insanity, said his wife, Nereida.
But then his nephew rescued him by introducing him to the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, Lopez-de-Victoria said.
The first year he took gold in each sport he played: table tennis, bowling, archery, shot put and weightlifting.
"If it wasn't for the games, I don't know," his wife said. "I think the games are what kept him sane."
Lopez-de-Victoria of Clearwater competed in his fifth National Veterans Wheelchair Games in late July, collecting a gold medal in archery and bronze in bowling.
• • •
Lopez-de-Victoria was drafted into the Army in 1963. He was soon sent to Vietnam for the first of three tours.
He later joined the Navy and became a jack-of-all-trades of sorts, he said. He served as a flight engineer, airplane mechanic and pilot.
Sports always played a major role in his life, he said. He played for several international softball teams, including Canada and Puerto Rico. If it weren't for the Navy, he might have gone pro.
But the lower back surgery left him out of work and relearning everything he knew.
"I loved my job," he said. "And all of the sudden I found myself with nothing. Nothing."
He sunk into a deep depression. His nephew, Orlando Perez, understood. The wheelchair games helped Perez, an Army veteran, cope with his disability.
"It made me equal again in the playing field out in the world," Perez said.
He thought the least he could do was introduce Lopez-de-Victoria to the games, Perez said.
"When I was a kid, I used to watch him play softball and do archery," Perez said. "He was a great inspiration to me."
But Perez has become a bigger inspiration to his uncle, Lopez-de-Victoria said. One year he watched as Perez gave up the gold medal in a relay race to help a competitor across the finish line.
"It's not ever really about the competition," Lopez-de-Victoria said. "It's about being together."
• • •
Although the competition gets harder each year, Lopez-de-Victoria has won seven gold medals, four silver and three bronze. His wife helps him train for seven months in the off season, walking with him as an unofficial coach.
His new handcycle arrived last month. He hopes to win the 5K race next year.
"He feels like a kid with his brand new toy," his wife said. "He wants me to get a handcycle, too, but I'll walk."
Ultimately, Lopez-de-Victoria hopes he can help young, injured soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He would like them to find hope for the future in his perseverance.
"The medals are great," he said. "But the goal is different."