WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 22, 2009) -- It was another battle within the beltway, this time on wheels, as Walter Reed Army Medical Center faced the National Naval Medical Center for bragging rights in wheelchair basketball Tuesday.

Although Walter Reed came out on top in the game, 12-4, it wasn't about winning for the competitors in as much as it was about attitude, camaraderie, self-esteem and peer relationships, said event organizers at Walter Reed's Wagner Sports Center.

"The wheelchair basketball tournament is important because it displays how our injured Soldiers have evolved during their rehabilitation here at Walter Reed," said Tiffany Smith, certified therapeutic recreation specialist at Walter Reed's Military Advanced Training Center.

"This event is transitioning them from a therapeutic activity implemented to improve their physical and social skills to an actual structured physical contact sport that they can continue to participate in well after their rehabilitation ends at Walter Reed," Smith said.

"They have formed unique bonds with each other through adaptive sports which the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation has provided for them during their recovery," he addid.

In addition to basketball, patients participate in other adaptive sports such as sailing, kayaking, cycling and skiing.

Smith said that playing wheelchair basketball gives patients "the motivation and courage to face other obstacles that they may encounter outside of the basketball court because they've proven they are capable and ready to take on new and different challenges."

The Walter Reed team consisted of both Soldiers and Marines going through rehabilitation at Walter Reed, Smith explained.

"Sports is one thing that every Soldier and Marine has in common, whether able-bodied or injured, therefore uniting all branches of services who are injured to represent Walter Reed wheelchair basketball team is a momentous event in itself."

The game between Walter Reed and Bethesda was part of the U.S. Paralympic Military Program Basketball Tournament. In addition to Walter Reed and Bethesda, other teams that participated came from the National Rehabilitation Hospital and D.C. Parks and Recreation. The NRH team beat Walter Reed in the championship game, 10-6.

The U.S. Paralympics is leading the development of new Paralympics sports programs in cities throughout the United States. With more than 21 million physically disabled Americans, including thousands of military veterans who have been injured while on active duty, U.S. Paralympics officials say their programs offer an important community need.

The U.S. Paralympics work with the leadership from key military and veterans' organizations, to develop sports and fitness programs for injured military personnel, which officials agree enhance not only individuals' self-esteem, but promote better overall health and a higher quality of life.

"This brings together a lot of people, whether they are Soldiers, Marines, Airmen or civilians, so they can show what they can do," said Col. Steven P. Jones, chief of staff of the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command headquartered at Walter Reed.

"They're out here to win," Jones added. "They are very competitive, and I would challenge anyone to get in those chairs and try to do what they're doing. It takes a lot of coordination and a lot of strength. They out here to win, and that's the attitude they've always had in life. I can guarantee you that. It's very inspirational."

Jones should know the strength and coordination it takes to play wheelchair basketball since before the games began, he sat in one of the specially-designed wheelchairs for the sport and took a few shots at the basket while trying to maneuver the wheelchair as ably as those who are used to them can. Jones, a former collegiate player, came up a little short on some of his shots, and he didn't have the coordination in maneuvering the chair as seasoned competitors, such as Army Sgt. 1st Class Lucritia Gail.

A patient at Walter Reed, Gail said she was introduced to wheelchair basketball by Kari Miller, a U.S. Paralympic Military Program coordinator who is also a double-amputee as a result of being hit by a drunk driver. Miller was home from leave in the Army when she was struck in the accident, which also claimed the life of her friend.

Gail, who hurt her back and foot in Iraq in 2006 and was medically evacuated to Walter Reed the same year, said that once Miller introduced her to wheelchair basketball, she was "hooked." She's been playing at Walter Reed for about two months.

"I enjoy just coming out and having a good time," Gail said. "It's a good experience and something that helps us to rehabilitate mentally and physically while we're here. I hope to continue once I leave [Walter Reed]."

"I like to think of it as the Olympics on steroids," said Miller, herself a decorated U.S. Paralympics athlete in volleyball. "It's an adaptive sport, but not an easy sport. We're missing legs and limbs, yet we still find ways to do the very things [able-bodied athletes] do. We try to push ourselves as much as possible to be elite athletes.

Wheelchair basketball has been part of the Paralympic Games since 1960. Though originally played only by men with spinal cord injuries, now both men and women with a variety of disabilities compete in the sport.

Many of the same regulations apply in the wheelchair game as they do in the able-bodied sport, except special rules accommodate dribbling from a wheelchair: competitors must take at least one dribble - or pass or shoot - for every two pushes of their wheelchair.

The International Wheelchair Basketball Federation governs all aspects of wheelchair basketball, including court size and basket height, which remain the same as able-bodied basketball.

Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Knowles said he began playing wheelchair basketball as a mandatory activity as part of his rehabilitation, but he ended up liking it and has been playing it ever since. He lost his left leg June 25, 2008 after stepping on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. He's been playing wheelchair basketball for a few months and says what he finds most enjoyable about the game is "the winning."

"It fuels the competitive spirit in all of us," Knowles said. He added that although he can't do some of things he used to do on the basketball court before he was injured, he still finds enjoyment in the game and competition. He's been rehabilitating at Walter Reed the last nine

Marine Cpl. Ray Hennagir has been at Walter Reed nearly two years. He lost both legs and four fingers on his left hand as a result of an IED in Iraq. He said he got into wheelchair basketball because one of his therapists kept encouraging him to try it.

"I came out and I kind of liked it the first day, although I wasn't that good at it," Hennagir recalled. "It was kind of weird, so I decided to come back again because it was fun. I just kept getting better at it," he said, which was evident by the way the Marine handled "the rock" in leading Walter Reed's offense to the championship game Tuesday.

Hennagir said he's been playing wheelchair basketball for about a year and a half, and he finds the competitiveness the most enjoyable aspect of the sport.

(Bernard S. Little serves as the command information officer for Walter Reed Army Medical Center.)

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16