Army National Guard veteran Keith Thompson damaged his spine in a 2006 motorcycle crash, years after his service ended. He became a paraplegic and bound to a wheelchair. But in 2022, he will compete in his ninth National Veteran Wheelchair Games.
This athletic National Guard veteran, who returns to the competition as the 2018 winner of the “Spirit of the Games” Award, was introduced to adaptive sports through his VA physical therapist Charlene James.
Thompson, who served with interrupted contracts between 1989 and 2001 after mobilizing for operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, said competitive sports appealed to him immediately.
“All the events caught my attention because my family is athletically inclined,” Thompson said. “I had done football and softball competitively before my accident. So when I knew I could do it from the chair, that piqued my interest.”
Wheelchair games athlete mentors new competitors
And through the National Veterans Wheelchair Games, which VA established in 1981, he is able to continue training, competing and winning.
The event, according to VA’s website, “is the world’s largest annual wheelchair sports event solely for military veterans.”
After several appearances at the games, Thompson was surprised to receive the “Spirit of the Games” award in 2018 during the closing reception. The annual award is given to a veteran who exemplifies the event’s core values through athletic achievement, leadership and support of his or her fellow athletes.
Seated in a large ballroom, focused on getting additional seating for others who were in the standing-room sections, Thompson didn’t even realize he was the recipient until he looked up and saw his own photos on the main screen.
Since then, his enthusiasm has remained strong.
“I try to mentor our novice and newer athletes,” Thompson said. “Trying to do therapy on your own gets old after a while, and it’s hard to stay motivated to do that on your own. You make excuses not to go to the gym. It’s better in a group atmosphere and the competition makes it more fun.”
When the games were canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic, Thompson focused on at-home workouts. He paid for his own home gym to continue training, but said VA provides resources for adaptive athletes.
“There is a Challenged Athlete Foundation for any injured veterans or first responders,” he said. “They will sponsor you and help you get the equipment and necessary training. Through their programs, I do wheelchair basketball and hand cycling.”
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This summer, the Wheelchair Games resumed competition in New York City, and Thompson was thrilled to participate.
“It was very rewarding because my brother and sister played basketball there, so being able to play adaptive sports at Rutledge Park was an honor,” he said. “I did wheelchair softball, table tennis and nine ball (pool). For Track and Field, I did shotput, discus and javelin.”
Next summer, when the Wheelchair Games are held in Tempe, Arizona, Thompson will try his hand at new sports, including Boccia (lawn bowling) and badminton.
To prepare, Thompson is training weekly at his local hospital’s health and wellness center.
Thompson encouraged all veterans, whether or not they have been injured to “get out and participate” and live an active and healthy life.