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Local athletes train for the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa.

NEW TAMPA — Last week, Davis Celestine worked his way through his training circuit with a room-warming smile at the New Tampa YMCA.

Celestine, 38, lives in Lutz and is down to his last training sessions before the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games. The C6 partial quadriplegic plans to break a record by lifting 235 pounds on a military press in his sixth time competing in the games.

"It's mind blowing when you see someone doing something you've never tried," Celestine said. "It gives me inspiration to go out and try it on my own."

The games, here in Tampa for the first time, start Saturday and continue through July 18. After last year's games in Richmond, Va., a torch was passed to James A. Haley VA Medical Center director Kathleen Fogarty.

"We're honored to be the host facility for the world's largest annual wheelchair competition," she said. "It is our privilege to lend support to the athletes as they 'Seize the Day in Tampa Bay' by competing against one another to showcase their life-long rehabilitation and recovery efforts."

The event will bring about 660 veterans to compete in events such as weight lifting, quad rugby, javelin, swimming, basketball, hand-cycling and table tennis. The competing veterans use wheelchairs because of spinal cord injuries, neurological conditions, amputations and other mobility impairments. The games started as a way for veterans to focus on their abilities and work on rehabilitation through competition.

Celestine was injured while training with his U.S. Navy Seals unit before deploying to Afghanistan in 2001. His commander sent him to Tampa, telling him it was the best place for rehabilitation, and Celestine and his family stayed.

"The VA gave me great hope," he said. "They made me feel like the sky's the limit."

He has regained use of his biceps and triceps muscles through adaptive sports and is now the president of the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. People often mistake his injury, suspecting he is a paraplegic.

Celestine will compete in weight lifting, bowling, table tennis, hand-cycling and quad rugby.

Sam Bell, a former Marine who drove a 70-ton Hercules tank in Iraq that he describes as a balled up fist of power, is competing in five events for his first time competing in the games.

Bell, 34, broke his back 16 months ago in a motorcycle accident when someone drove into his lane, he said.

After three months in a coma and another few months to come to terms with where he was, he came downstairs to the Haley recreational therapy room and got to work. Now, he can bench press his weight, but prefers to use the weights as preparation for his events at the games: hand-cycling, bowling, table tennis, air guns and wheelchair slalom.

Bell had a pivotal moment during a martial arts class and now is teaching it to other veterans in wheelchairs at the VA. One day, he hopes to bring martial arts to the national wheelchair games.

He lives in Brandon and drives himself to Haley three days a week to train.

He went through his workout routine on a recent day with Mike Firestone, a physical therapist and coach for the Tampa team of about 35 athletes. Most of the progress a person makes regaining use of limbs happens in the two years after the accident, Firestone said, and Bell plans to work his hardest in that time.

"At the games, he'll see people functioning even better than him," Firestone said. "It'll be a good experience for him."

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

Local athletes train for the 33rd National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Tampa. 07/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 2:25pm]
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