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Published: Wednesday, 7/2/2003

Veterans in wheelchairs test their athletic mettle


But something changed for Mr. Stone at the Seattle games in 1996: The competition and the camaraderie were addictive.

He was hooked.

This year's games start Saturday in Long Beach, Calif., and the Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs office is sending a team of 18 athletes from southeast Michigan.

Mr. Stone, 42, of Adrian competes in the wheelchair slalom, a timed obstacle course. He also competes in the rifle competition, traditional archery, exhibition games that change each year, and nine-ball pool.

“Never play [pool] against someone in a wheelchair,” at least not for money, Mr. Stone said. The veteran on wheels has a great view of the table that gives the player an advantage.

Mr. Stone, Matthew Winters, and Judy Ross will compete with about 500 athletes, about 50 of them women, from across the country in an event that is second only in size to the Paralympics.

Mr. Winters, 41, of Reading, Mich., will compete in bowling, shot put, javelin, and discus.

Ms. Ross, 58, of Hillsdale will compete in the 220K electric wheelchair race, nine-ball, bowling, and the poker rally, a race with checkpoints for trivia questions and a poker game.

Air rifle is Ms. Ross' favorite event, even though she won't be participating in that event this year.

“When I hit my target, it's such a morale booster,” she said. “You feel 10 feet tall.”

The Ann Arbor VA has been sending teams to the games since they started in 1981. The games' main goals are sports rehabilitation and recruiting new participants, said Kim Byers, public affairs coordinator for the games. The Ann Arbor team has three new athletes this year, but no one from Toledo.

Mr. Stone was a Ranger-trained member of the Army's 7th Infantry Division. He joined in 1982 and was hurt in 1985 when he was in a vehicle that went off a cliff.

Mr. Stone sustained numerous injuries: one to his head and four fractured bones, two of which were dislocated. He was discharged in 1987 having attained the rank of corporal.

“It's pretty much a miracle,” Mr. Stone said, describing his recovery. He has paralysis from the shoulders down, but he can use his left arm and has some use of his right arm and left leg.

“Life's been hard, but it's pretty good,” said Mr. Stone, a freelance commercial artist.

Things got better for Mr. Stone when he went to the games.

“I didn't want to be anybody's token wheelchair guy,” Mr. Stone said, “But when I went out there, it totally changed my life. It just really opened me up.”

This is his seventh year.

Last year, Mr. Stone was recruited by the U.S. Archery Program to train for the Paralympics. In September, he will go to Madrid representing the United States at the International Paralympic Committee World Target Championships. For now, he trains at least 40 hours a week.

If he and the team do well, he could compete in archery at the 2004 Paralympic Games.

“I get to serve my country one more time,” Mr. Stone said.

Mr. Winters served in the Air Force for three years before he was hurt. He was a sergeant with the 52nd Aircraft Generation Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany from 1981 to 1984. Mr. Winters fell from a spiral staircase into a World War II bunker.

He suffered a skull fracture, back injuries, and neck fractures. The injuries caused him to develop dyslexia, so he had to learn to read and write again. “I'm up and at 'em now,” Mr. Winters said. He can use his arms, but not his legs.

He competed in his first wheelchair games seven years ago. His health prevented him from going back until now.

This is the 20th year at the games for Ms. Ross.

She joined the Army in January, 1965, and served as a combat intelligence analyst, attaining the rank of Spec. 4. She became ill and was discharged a year later. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1976.

Ms. Ross first went to the games when a VA athletic director encouraged her to go.

The games help people in wheelchairs think of themselves differently, she said. “You don't stick out like a sore thumb. You're just one of the group.”

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