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For disabled vets, skiing on Lake Seminole brings 'freedom'

SEMINOLE

They left their wheelchairs behind on the shore.

Towed on specially rigged skis by a speedboat Sunday on the water at Lake Seminole Park, disabled veterans not used to living with physical limitations didn't need to stay within the confines of those chairs.

After two trips out on the water, Shawn O'Neill, 31, described it like this:

"Freedom. I leave all my worries when I hit that water," he sighed. "It's bliss. So therapeutic."

O'Neill was among those invited to an exhibit hosted by the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa and the UCanSki2 nonprofit group from Florida that promotes the virtues of adaptive water skiing.

"Wahoooo!" yelled O'Neill, tossing himself back into the water after he was released from ropes attached to the boat. He bobbed, smiling, and slapped the hand of Morgan Schreiner, the volunteer who had skied alongside him.

The sport will be part of the 33rd Veterans Wheelchair Games, to be hosted in the Tampa Bay area in 2013. It's the largest competition of its kind in the world, and organizers at Haley expect to draw 1,000 competitors.

O'Neill plans to be there.

• • •

Each year, local hosts pick a different sport for athletes, said Jeanene LeSure, a recreational therapist at Haley and coordinator for the Tampa Bay games.

"Obviously, being surrounded by water, we wanted to offer a water sport," she said.

O'Neill has been out on the lake several times with Ann O'Brine-Satterfield, who founded UCanSki2. She noted his talent and encouraged him to try more complicated moves. On this day, he did several spins in a row.

She says her organization does more than water skiing.

"We're learning how to live again," she said.

O'Neill, who lives in St. Petersburg, is thinking about the U.S. Disabled Water Ski Team.

He calls himself a "gearhead" from Cleveland, Ohio, who dropped out of college to join the Air Force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

He was stationed in Germany and Qatar, where he said he flew with a crew daily to Baghdad to deliver medical supplies and troops.

Then five years ago, an injury sustained during a motocross competition stateside left him paraplegic.

He took turns Sunday with others veterans who haven't let their disabilities curtail active lives.

Stuart Contant, 48, is a retired Army chief warrant officer. He was injured in 2002 while flying an Apache helicopter that crashed in Afghanistan. Contant is a stay-at-home dad in Gainesville with two young daughters. He plays tennis competitively and plans to go next year to the U.S. Open Wheelchair Tennis competition.

• • •

Another athlete, Davis Celestine, 37, retired from the Navy as a petty officer third class. He was injured in 2001 while training for a deployment to Afghanistan. At first, he was unable to even talk.

He now can, and has regained some use of his arms. He serves as the president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, bowls on Wednesdays and skis in Aspen every year. He finished six marathons using a hand cycle.

He encouraged other disabled veterans to try challenges.

"It really felt great out there, what with the wind in your hair," he said.

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

For disabled vets, skiing on Lake Seminole brings 'freedom' 09/30/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 30, 2012 11:19pm]
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