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Monday May 23 2022
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When Don McLaughlin had a leg amputated due to poor circulation two years ago, he knew he didn’t want to become a spectator. “I was very active,” said the Michigan native who served with the Marines during the Vietnam War.

“I didn’t want to sit around on my butt and do nothing, so I got involved in wheelchair sports. And that led to here.”

“I didn’t want to sit around on my butt and do nothing, so I got involved in wheelchair sports. And that led to here.”

“Here” is the 31st National Veterans Wheelchair Games, held in Pittsburgh last month at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center and other venues throughout the city.

Co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Wheelchair Games brought together nearly 600 military veterans who use wheelchairs due to spinal cord injuries, amputations and neurological diseases.

The athletes, ranging from World War II’s “Greatest Generation” to those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, competed in 17 sports, including softball, basketball, rugby and hand cycling.

A first-time competitor, McLaughlin participated in javelin, shot put, air rifle, bowling and tennis, for which he earned a silver medal.

“A lot of these are events that I did before my amputation,” McLaughlin said. “But I’m looking at a lot of other events to decide whether I want to do some different things next year.”

That doesn’t surprise Jerry Baylor, sports director of the Keystone Chapter of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. The former Marine from Leechburg, Pa., suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident in 1980 and got involved in wheelchair athletics while rehabbing in Harmarville.

Baylor has won nearly 100 medals in weightlifting, rugby and track and field since, including five gold medals in track this year. His peers voted him the 2011 Spirit of the Games winner, an award honoring the competitor best exemplifying sportsmanship, good character and athletic prowess.

“Almost every time you get a person to try one event and they see what’s available, they end up doing more,” Baylor said. “The more you can do, the better off you are with a disability. It helps strengthen you, it gives you a sense of well-being and it gives you confidence in yourself.”

McLaughlin also sees the games as “a chance to become part of the brotherhood of the military, the camaraderie that you get with the other athletes.”

Paul Jackson travels across the pond to bond with his fellow servicemen.

“Jacko,” from Birmingham, Great Britain, stands out with his gravelly voice, gold-beaded dreadlocks and wheelchair, which has a U.K. flag on the seat and the stars and stripes draped below. He served the Grenadier Guards – “the Queen’s guards,” he said, pulling his sleeveless shirt to reveal a tattoo over his heart of a red-and-black-clad guard carrying a bayonet.

“These are my brothers and sisters. I don’t care where you live,” Jackson said. “Even from the brand new lads and lassies that come, every one of them says they’ll come back next time. There are no races, color or arguments. On the field there are, but as soon as you get off? Friends. Go and have a drink.”

Connecting with children is the best part of the games for Jackson. On Kids Day, veterans and youths in wheelchairs came together to play softball, basketball and complete a slalom obstacle course.

“That’s first for me – medals are second,” Jackson said. “They’re never, ever gonna see another Englishman like me.”

Interacting with kids inspired Army veteran Orlando Perez, a paraplegic, to enroll at Oklahoma State University so that he can coordinate activities for children with disabilities. “Every single sport that you do able-bodied you can adapt, and there are leagues for it,” Perez said.

A 13-year competitor known for his intensity (he zipped from first to home and collided with the catcher at home plate during a softball game) and sense of humor (he charged the mound with a grin after getting hit by a pitch), Perez wants to raise awareness about the caliber of athletes competing in wheelchair sports.

“We want to show that we’re athletes and not just guys who sit in a wheelchair for a week,” said Perez, a native of Puerto Rico who idolizes Roberto Clemente.

Before the softball game, Perez high-fived a young boy in a wheelchair in the crowd and gave the boy his wristband.

“You see these kids coming and seeing us, and it’s amazing because maybe we can make an impact on their lives and have them overcome everything that we have overcome,” Perez said. “If we can get kids involved from an early age, they can be even better than we are. We started when nobody even heard of [wheelchair sports] and the games grew.

“Our dream is to sit down one day and watch these kids when they grow up on a sports channel,” Perez said. “I think we are such passionate athletes that we deserve some spots like that on TV.”

“It’s just amazing some of the stuff these guys can do,” McLaughlin said, gazing at a “Super G” Slalom obstacle course featuring hairpin turns around cones and ramps passing through wooden doors. “People say you can’t do certain things, and they’re out here proving they can.”

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