The Desert Challenge Disabled Sports Games for 2014 took place May 10 at Red Mountain High School in Mesa. Disabled veterans and active-duty service members competed this weekend to qualify in their respective events.
Participants trained using the facilities at Luke Air Force Base to prepare for this past weekend’s qualifying events. The athletes qualify under the Athlete Development Program and train for three days with national-level coaches. Athletes are identified and train transitioning from a recreational athlete to a professional athlete with the hope of being invited to join a national team.
The program is supported and funded by the Secretary of Defense and with a grant from Veterans Affairs. The VA offers a monthly allowance paid to Paralympic eligible athletes to develop themselves.
Volunteers and workers from the United States Olympic Committee spend their time helping to coach, mentor and encourage Paralympic-eligible athletes to push themselves beyond their physical limitations.
“It is definitely a rewarding career field to be in,” said Kallie Quinn, U.S. Olympic Committee director, Emerging Sport and Talent ID Program. “You not only see the progression, the athletic development of these injured service members, but you also see that it is giving them a piece of their life back. It gives them a chance to be part of a team again.”
The athletes trained in track events including running and wheelchair sprints and distance as well as field events including javelin, shot put and discus. Everyday training included strength and agility training with evening educational classroom activities.
Organized shortly after World War II, the Paralympic games were created as part of a rehabilitation program for injured service members. From there it grew into a competitive sport mirroring many of the same events held in the Olympics. No matter the disability, an individual can compete and aspire toward a goal. The Paralympics has grown to include both the Summer Paralympics, with 22 sports with 526 medal events, and the Winter Paralympics, which includes five sports with roughly 72 events.
“I think the Paralympics are awesome,” said Johnnie Williams, wheelchair athlete. “For people with disabilities to come out and show that they can still compete, to prove to the world we are not disabled, but to show the world that we are able.”
Williams is a prior enlisted Army Specialist. In 2003, after two years of service, the Humvee Williams was riding in hit a roadside bomb, and he was ejected from the vehicle. As he hit the ground, the Humvee rolled over his lower body, paralyzing him from the waist down.
William’s story is just one of the many veteran-turned-athlete inspirational stories that goes hand-in-hand when attending Paralympic qualifying events like the Desert Challenge.